Before exposing themselves to risks, whistleblowers should talk to an experienced lawyer so as to make an informed choice about taking those risks. Also, if an employee drops out in the middle after realizing the price of dissent, wrongdoers will be better off by being able to cover up evidence and chill future employees from blowing the whistle.
They should consult with their loved ones, who will be sharing the consequences of the whistleblowing to a significant degree, before taking the risk. If whistleblowers make the decision alone to take on the power structure, they may well end up alone. Loss of family is far worse than loss of job.
They should continue to work within their system as long as possible without incurring suspicion. It can backfire badly for a whistleblower to make aggressive internal allegations from a lonely perch of isolation. By contrast, without making charges, whistleblowers can be the insider eyes and ears that allow NGOs to stay one step ahead of their adversaries. If whistleblowers raise issues internally in a non-threatening manner, they can learn and share with NGOs the advance previews for cover-ups.
They should create a contemporaneous paper trail or diary of everything that happens, including when they raised complaints and issues, and whether they faced any retaliation.
They should keep evidence in a safe place. Authorities usually are not limited in access to the whistleblower’s workplace, but home storage of documents can also be risky, potentially subjecting a whistleblower to a pretextual but seemingly valid discipline and harassment such as expanded retaliatory investigations. Since agencies have subpoenaed, searched and ransacked homes, the best choice is to secure the evidence with the whistleblower’s attorney, where it is shielded by attorney-client privilege.
Without giving themselves away, they should test the waters and organize support for themselves among their colleagues, if possible. This is necessary for quality control. A second set of eyes can ensure the accuracy and legitimacy of the concern. Seeking support can also determine whether there is a sufficient solidarity base of supporting witnesses for the disclosure to have an impact. If the whistleblower is isolated, making allegations alone again could backfire by guaranteeing that those engaging in misconduct will weather the storm.
If there are legitimate liability concerns attached to blowing the whistle, coach them on how to secure and protect evidence without removing it. Tactics such as taking cell phone pictures on a personal (not work) phone can secure documents that otherwise would be destroyed. Whistleblowers can also reproduce memorized documents at home.
Keeping an index of critical documents is another strategy, as is hiding incriminating documents and electronic records in a camouflaged (misnamed) file in their work computer so that they are not lost and can be shown to law enforcement later if an employer tries to destroy evidence. These strategies can help prove the whistleblower’s claims while limiting vulnerability to charges of theft of records. If there is uncertainty, do not keep records without a legal opinion confirming lawfulness.
If maintaining anonymity is a priority, they should communicate with you through secure means, including using Signal, SecureDrop, or snail mail with no return address.
Your source should not contact you while they are at work. A whistleblower should not use work equipment either, including office phones, computers, or even paper. Otherwise, he or she can be fired for engaging in personal business with the employer’s time and resources.
They should turn off location tracking in their phone before taking any pictures of documents, and strip any metadata from documents before sending them. NGOs are well-advised to maintain a relationship or retainer with professionals experienced in removing traceability.
Use an advocacy group as the beach head for a coalition. Solidarity is the magic word for whistleblowers to make a difference and survive. It can be a fatal mistake for an employee, or a public interest organization, to try to do everything alone. Normally a hostile bureaucracy surrounds the isolated whistleblower. The most effective contribution an organization can make is to facilitate strategic matchmaking—getting the truth into so many hands that an awakened, informed majority of stakeholders surrounds the bureaucracy, reversing the balance of power.