What Motivates A Whistleblower?

A couple of recent news events brought whistleblowers into the spotlight. Last week, an anonymous whistleblower's report that President Obama took an elevator ride with a man who had a violent criminal record and was armed at the time, unbeknownst to the Secret Service, contributed to the resignation of the agency's director. Preceding that, ProPublica published an intricate story detailing the New York State Fed's cozy relationship to Goldman Sachs using accounts from a former employee who recently filed a wrongful termination lawsuit -- what she and her legal team allege was a retaliatory step after she attempted to report misconduct.

Seemingly, instances of bad behavior by our government institutions become public knowledge only when an outraged employee publicizes them. But what distinguishes these employees from the many others with equal proximity to, but no urge to report, the malfeasance they see?

According to Janet P. Near, a professor at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University who has studied whistleblowing since 1980, it's less about the psychology of the individual and more about the severity of the situation they've uncovered. "People look for differences in personality, background, but there aren't very large differences," Near told The Huffington Post. "What seems to predict whether someone will actually blow the whistle is: how serious the wrongdoing is, if they are very sure it happened and so on ... Situational characteristics rather than personal ones."

Fully 45 percent of employees in the business sector see some type of misconduct and 64 percent of those do report it, according to a 2013 report from the Ethics Resource Center. That's quite a few people -- nearly none of whom go on to media infamy like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning did.

Highly visible cases become that way, Near explained, most typically because a whistleblower has faced retaliation internally and must seek help outside the organization. And anyway, she wouldn't characterize Snowden as a whistleblower since he was not an employee of the agency he reported for misconduct.

"If they cannot suffer retaliation from their employer, we don't count them," said Near. "When the federal government retaliates against Snowden, they are not retaliating against a former employee -- they are retaliating against a U.S. citizen. He was acting more as a journalist or other outsider with information about an organization."

Employment is an important defining characteristic of whistleblowing simply because employee retaliation is formidable -- particularly in the small, specialized industries, where everyone knows each other. Sherron Watkins, the Enron vice president who was called before Congress to testify against her employer, faced difficulty finding employment thereafter, according to Near. Carmen Segarra, a former employee of the New York Federal Reserve, was fired after seven months on the job.

"Most of us grow up to realize that what people say and what people do are two things. We learn a certain cynicism about life, like that everything a politician promises isn't necessarily going to be what he does," C. Frederick Alford, political psychology professor and author of Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power told Mother Jones. "I think whistleblowers somehow come late to this realization. They're naive in a certain sense, and then when they come to realize that people are lying, cheating, stealing, whatever, they're shocked."