This is a thorny problem for any bureaucracy, but it certainly is a significant problem for the federal government. When a federal worker engages in whistleblowing, he or she is typically going outside the hierarchy of their department or divisions to bring notice to the problem or wrongdoing.
Managers greatly dislike having their authority and decision-making ability questioned in such an overt manner and may be personally offended by someone beneath them going around them and very likely embarrassing them. And this often leads to retaliation by the manger or supervisors.
But retaliation is damaging to a department, as it punishes someone for doing the right thing. And if the manager is protecting or part of the wrongdoing, it is even more egregious.
And this is where it becomes difficult. Who punishes those who engaged in retaliation? For the whistleblower, their concern is being cleared of any implication of wrongdoing and having their concerns addressed, and being reinstated if they were terminated, receiving back pay and having any other necessary corrections made to their service record.
But how do we discourage managers from engaging in retaliation in the first place?
Obviously, rigorous discipline must be used including reassignments, demotions and terminations. As the Veterans Affairs scheduling scandal demonstrated, petty bureaucratic manipulation of metrics can have real and potentially life-threatening consequences.
Those who punished the VA whistleblowers should suffer severe consequences, which would send a message to those in the federal civil service that illegal retaliation carries significant risk for their careers and demonstrates to potential whistleblowers that they can do the right thing without the fear that their careers will be destroyed.
The Washington Post, “Will there be any discipline for those who punished VA’s whistleblowers?” Joe Davidson, December 8, 2014