Cassandra at the Keyboard: Whistleblowing and Working

I originally gave this talk at Open Source Bridge 2015. I then almost completely rewrote it and gave it at Write/Speak/Code Chicago in 2016.


Content notes

This essay will contain references to the following topics. If that’s something you prefer not to read about, I totally understand:

  • Discussion of sexual harrassment
  • Discussion of sexual violence
  • Discussion of intimate partner/domestic violence
  • Discussion of online stalking/abuse
  • Adult language

Cassandra

If you’re here to learn about the database, I’m sorry. This is the other one.

I named it after a mythological character who was cruelly cursed to provide perfectly accurate prophecies AND NEVER BE BELIEVED.

I think Cassandra is the patron of whistleblowing because no one decides to upend their life for a lie. Whistleblowing is a painful and dangerous process, much like telling ancient Greek kings news they don’t want to hear.

Whistleblowing: A definition

For something to be whistleblowing, it needs to have all of these qualities.

  • True
  • Actionable
  • Expensive or painful to solve

If something is true and actionable, you are asking for a reasonable improvement, there’s no problem.
If something is true and painful, but not actionable, there’s nothing anyone can do to fix it.
If you are reporting something you know is untrue, your organization is not what needs repair.

When I say painful, I mean that the problem is going to be hard to fix, because it’s expensive, or because it damages a person or company’s self-image, or because it will require behavior changes from a large number of people.

Reducing carbon footprints, admitting doping in sports, and recalling cars are all examples of painful actions.

Also, when I say whistleblowing, there is an implied power differential – this is not a thing that happens in mutual relationships, but from a less powerful person to a more powerful person or organization.

Whistleblowing is not reporting something because it affects you, but because it will affect other people. Vengeful reporting may be justified, but it’s not always the same thing as whistleblowing.

Options

So you have noticed something is very wrong.

You are sure it is happening.

There are actions that could fix it, if someone had the will to take the actions. You are not sure anyone will choose the right thing to do over the status quo, because the action will be very difficult.

What can you do?

from Google Books

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, a book about choices by Albert O. Hirschman

In 1970, Albert O. Hirschman wrote that when a person sees a decline in quality from their organization, they can either choose voice (complaint) or exit, but that loyalty affects that binary choice to make it a three-way decision. Your loyalty affects how you choose to exit or speak up.

For example, have you ever been attached to a brand and disappointed when they screw up, like when Lands End took two belt loops off the back of their plus size jeans? You can either write them and complain, or you can silently take your business to Eddie Bauer. But if you have a lot of loyalty to Lands End, you’re more likely to give them a chance to fix their mistake by telling them about it.

These balancing decisions frequently occur in combination in whistleblowing cases. A person can see a problem, voice it, and then remain loyally silent if it is not repaired. Eventually, they may feel that they need to leave. Voice, Loyalty, and Exit are not a one-time decision, but an ongoing tension in our decision-making.

Let’s make this less abstract. Here are three examples from my life.

Voice

Do not plagiarize the American Medical Association. This seems like an obvious rule for living, but I was put in a situation where my manager directly told me to “file the serial numbers off” some documentation from the AMA. I felt…unhappy about this and asked if we could get permission. He said no.

Rather than repeat my protests to my manager, or just go ahead and do it, I went to the CFO and explained why this was a violation of my professional ethics and could get me, personally, sued, as well as the company. The CFO took my report seriously, and I ended up in a call with a terrifying lawyer from New York who probably billed by the second.

The CEO got my manager to back off, and it was mostly ok. But even though that is a best-case scenario of how to handle whistleblowing, this guy was still my manager, still didn’t believe he’d done anything ACTUALLY wrong. I left as soon as I could, because it was so awkward working as his direct report.

Loyalty/Silence

Have you ever wanted to stand up at a wedding and say, “For the love of God, don’t do it”? I have.

I spent the week before my brother’s wedding trying to deny to myself that I was worried about his choice. I thought that maybe I was being overprotective of my little brother, that I just needed to let the bride find her feet in my family. I chose loyalty over voice, over saying something.

As it turns out, it was the wrong choice, and she was the wrong fit, and maybe it would have saved everyone some court costs and time and heartache if any of his loving and loyal family had said, “Yo, you know you don’t have to get married, even if we have the dress right here, don’t you?”

Exit

Anyone wanting to see which way I incline in this system has only to look at my LinkedIn history.

I leave. I see problems, and I say something, or I don’t say anything, but I leave. I leave as well as I can in the circumstances I have, but I get out of Dodge. This may seem like cowardice. It may BE cowardice, but I don’t have the energy to stay and fight it out every time. There is an enormous mental and emotional cost to convincing an organization they have a problem.

Most recently, I fired a client because I believed they were selling something as a security solution, when it was in fact only an access control solution. I tried voice, but when that failed, I left instead of staying for what I felt was the inevitable crisis when someone was breached.

Bigger examples

My examples are relatively small-scale. I’m lucky that way. Let’s touch on some other people who have made the voice/loyalty/exit choice on a larger scale.

Voice

Whistleblowers can be women who stand up to abusive rudeness, like Sarah Sharp.

Sarah Sharp

Sarah Sharp, Open Source Hardware Developer, General Badass

Sarah was a Linux kernel developer when she decided to request more collegial interactions on the Linux Kernel Mailing List, which could have upwards of a thousand messages a day.

Linus Torvalds said,

“I’d like to be a nice person and curse less and encourage people to grow rather than telling them they are idiots. I’m sorry – I tried, it’s just not in me.”

Network World said,

Sharp has publicly locked horns with senior Linux kernel developers including Torvalds in the past over issues of civility and professionalism, and has, arguably, been more responsible than anyone else for pressing the community to consider those issues more critically in recent years.”

There are people like this, who have chosen to take their whistleblowing public, and are suffering very real consequences for it, but who are also moving the conversation by their very presence, their stubborn refusal to shut up about it already.

We don’t all have to be that someone. We don’t have to admire all of whistleblowers on a personal level. We don’t even have to like them. But we can see that this is what voice looks like, if that’s a path we ever feel we need to follow ourselves.

Loyalty/Silence

When I was thinking of examples for this section, I was struck by how many of them were masculine.

Oh, I thought. The culture of military and sports bonding promotes loyalty over speaking out.

  • The NFL’s coverup on traumatic brain injuries.
  • Lance Armstrong’s US Postal cycling team full of doping.
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Then I realized which women were engaging in loyalty and silence — women in abusive and unsafe relationships.

Frequently, by the time a woman starts thinking of leaving to save herself, she is tied to the abuser by loyalty, by children, by financial dependence, by emotional abuse. It’s too easy to say that people in abusive relationships should just leave. We have a strong human urge to team up with people we love, who say they love us.

Exit

There are a lot of people who have left, and for the most part, they have chosen not to be famous about it.

They decided to spend more time with their families. They went into a second career. They found another job. I don’t think it’s right for me to use most of them as examples, but the one really core to me is Kathy Sierra.

She was viciously abused and threatened, and because of that, she gave up her online presence, and much of her speaking and teaching career for five years. She stopped teaching people Java and user empathy and spend healing time with her Icelandic horses, who have never been known to dox anyone.

Photo by Kathy Sierra

Kathy Sierra takes heartbreakingly good pictures of her horses

Her exit was public, clear, and painful for a lot of us to watch.

Real Talk

Let’s talk about what’s going to happen if you choose to exercise voice.

You’re likely to get fired

Not for reporting harassment, but because you’re not a good fit, or a bad team player, or just not fitting in. The worst part is that the people telling you this will actually believe it’s true.

There are federal whistleblower protections, but once you’ve been fired for reporting someone, you are probably not excited about working with them anymore, and invoking the protections involves getting a lawyer, and and and. So there’s that.

You’ll take a reputation hit

Depending on how big a splash you make, or who you are pissing off, you may come under online or offline attack, you may suffer professional damage, you may get a reputation as someone who is in it for the drama, or a tattle. Just as women in an industry talk to each other about unpleasant men they deal with, men gossip about who is difficult for them to deal with. It will feel like everyone is calling you a bitch.

One of the first responses a lot of people have to a report of harassment is to tell the victim to toughen up. You remember that Medium post where the woman said, sure, guys had tried to kiss her at conferences, but it wasn’t a big deal, she just talked more about her husband and her kids and made sure to leave parties before midnight? Yeah. It’s not just men that will come down on women who report harassment. It’s also women who have had their own run-in and have chosen loyalty, for their own reasons. Choosing otherwise challenges them in really uncomfortable ways.

You won’t feel vindicated

Even once you speak up, you are not necessarily going to get the outcome you want. That’s frequently outside your control.

People can report rapes, but they can’t jail rapists by themselves. They can report embezzlement, but they cannot get the money restored. They can report harassment, but they cannot change a company’s culture.

If you are going to be crushed if nothing changes, you may want to consider Exit more heavily.

Why speak up?

That is all pretty dire, isn’t it? This is not the same talk I would give to people with less experience, but I’m guessing that very little of this is news to you. [Note: I was giving this talk to a room of senior/experienced women]

So let’s talk about why people make the choices they do about whistleblowing.

Systems

Either the whistleblower loves the system so much that they can’t bear to see this grit in the gears of something good…

….or they are so bothered by the apparatus of the system that they want to throw a wrench in the works — the original sabotage.

In any case, this kind of motivation is usually about a long-term problem.

Empathy

The problem you see matters to other people – people like you or people you care about.

Think of LeAnne Walters, who went to the Flint City Council and then the EPA about the water in her house. It’s not just that she had a problem, it’s that if she had a problem, then other people would too. Environmental concerns are probably the easiest for us to generalize as being for the sake of humanity in general.

Something is going wrong and people are being hurt, and our whistleblower can’t stand that. The whistleblowing invokes the power of someone who has more capacity to stop bad things from happening to people.

Ideals and rules

Say something because your ideals are being violated. Ideals can include things like patriotism and faith, or even the image of ourselves as “good people”. Chelsea Manning leaked documents because she felt that the world needed to know what the US was doing, because it conflicted with her understanding of what it meant to be American/patriotic to keep quiet.

Say something because you are following an ethical or legal structure that requires it. This is why we have mandated reporting for people who work with children. You are given the support of legally not being able to keep questionable things to yourself if you are a mandated reporter. You have to tell someone.

Know your reasons for speaking up. It makes it easier to be clear about the outcomes you hope for.

Why keep quiet?

This is not an idealistic talk. I am aware there are lots of reasons a person would choose not to be a whistleblower. Let’s talk about some of the common reasons people decide that the risk is too much.

Practicalities

Sometimes, your truth is not worth as much as the ability to live indoors and eat food.

Sometimes you need to weigh the benefit others will get from your speech with the harm you may experience. Lots of us are sole wage earners, or we don’t have the ability to walk away for some other reason.

In my family, we say, “Mommy can’t go to the beach with you. Someone has to earn the money to buy the yogurt.” This example is grimmer by the day as my kids turn into teens!

Integrity

Maybe it’s important to your self- concept to keep a secret.

For example, Chelsea Manning’s co-workers did not reveal classified data, even if it conflicted with their personal ethics, because they had sworn an oath to keep it secret.

Autonomy

The most important reason not to tell your story is because you don’t owe it to anyone. You are not required to live out your pain for other people to see. You are not required to report a rape if it doesn’t serve your needs. You are not obligated to speak up at detriment to yourself.

No employer is as important as you are, your whole self. If it would serve your organization and harm you, you don’t have to say anything.

Exit, your other option

Odds are, at some point you’re going to have to leave. Either your organization won’t change, or they will push you out, or you don’t feel that you can stay any longer without saying something.

What are you going to do about it?

Go quietly

There are two ways to leave. The first is to leave quietly, to take the exit interview and say you’re moving for a better opportunity, to bite your tongue, to get out as cleanly as you can.

This is a perfectly valid, reasonable, and respectable decision.

Burn it all

The other way to leave is like an action movie hero walking away from an explosion.

You go in to the exit interview and lay out the whole truth. You email the details to the paper of record. You embrace your identity as a troublemaker and you make sure everyone knows why you are making trouble. You (gasp) tell the truth on Glassdoor.

You’ll burn some bridges. It’ll be awkward to get references, or maybe even your next job. But you can pick voice and exit simultaneously.

Practical advice

Do what you can with what you have. Know your reasons and your (probable) consequences.
Whatever your reasons, you should identify them and make sure that your plan takes them into account, so you meet your actual goals. Why are you doing this? Systems? Empathy? Ideals?

There are always consequences for invoking power. It’s a little like summoning a demon. You are never the most powerful person in the relationship, by definition. So before you say anything, you have to try to establish what the likely consequences are, and whether they change your opinion of what you want to do.

Depending on the level of what you want to say:
Talk to a friend
Talk to a lawyer
Talk to people who will be affected

Are you ready to go? Do you have a box under your desk, do you have your computer all cleaned up, do you have your parachute packed? Exit is what you do on your own terms, but depending on how serious the thing you are speaking up about is, you may get asked to leave anyway.

Audience matters

You want to invoke some external power, but you need to figure out how the most appropriate person is. Telling the wrong person could be worse than silence.

Power: They need to have power — the power to change something, or to bump the problem up the ladder. You need them to be someone who can do something about your problem that you’re reporting.

Authority is the external trapping of power, but it is also the way that your actions will be legitimized. When I refused to plagiarize the AMA, I went to the CFO to report my boss. Although the CFO had the power to tell me I had done the right thing, and to connect me with the expensive lawyer, it was only when he told the CEO that my boss was reprimanded. I had chosen someone with power, but not the right kind of authority.

Sympathy: Choose someone with sympathy. They don’t have to be sympathetic to you as a human, although that’s nice. They need to be sympathetic to your reason for telling. Are they systems people? Are they empathy people? Whatever it is that drives them needs to be something you address when you tell them.

Go in with a solution

Choose someone who can act on your report. Choose someone as a partner for change, with the power and the psychological profile of being a ‘fixer’.”

Especially in workplace situations, if you go in and complain, you are a problem. If you go in with a solution, you are an asset. People may not take your suggestion, but that’s ok, at least you have offered a way that they can think about solutions.

The worst thing about getting a reputation as a complainer is that it’s easier to think of YOU as the problem, and if they get rid of you, then they don’t have a problem anymore, right?

It’s all about the money

Choose someone who understands how this change will contribute to the financial health of the company.

The great thing about whistleblowing at a company is that it is almost always true that your disclosure will save them money in the long run. You just have to get them to understand that scope. Are you going to save their product from being delayed by programmer communication issues? Will this action keep them from being sued? Could the company avoid a superfund site-level of expense? Will a change improve the productivity of a team that is no longer dealing with the mental expense of micro aggressions?

Businesses have a hierarchy of needs, just like we do. They want to stay alive. So part of successfully disclosing is convincing the organization that it’s a matter of life and death.

Protect yourself

With any form of whistleblowing, you run a risk, but here are my suggestions for making it as safe as possible.

Build a “Fed-Up Fund”

How you fill it is your business, and I will tell you it is wickedly hard to do this after you have kids, so I really suggest doing it before.

You should have 3 months of expenses saved up. That gives you time to emotionally recover and find a new job. 6 months is better, but 3 months will probably do.

I can’t tell you the number of women I know who have taken on stressful or unpleasant high-paying jobs to save enough money to have “just walking out” as an option.

Build your team

Make sure you can get ahold of the people you care about without going through your company, your church, or your ex. Make these connections before you do anything drastic, because afterwards, it will feel awkward to reach out to people you are no longer seeing every day.

Find support. It’s emotionally exhausting to be the nail that sticks up. You’re going to need support from your peers, your family, your friends. Make sure Team You is activated and consulted as appropriate before you do anything.

Keep offsite backups

Don’t depend on having crucial information that you are trying to distribute or keep to protect yourself in just one place. Give a copy to a friend, file it with your lawyer. Especially do not count on corporate email to prove your case. They are in charge of the server, not you.

Document everything

I have a friend who worked for a non-profit. She was having real trouble with a person in leadership, and she felt that her job was threatened. When I asked her if she had documentation, she said that she did, but it was all in an account tied to her employment there.

That’s a terrible idea. I am not a lawyer, but in my experience, there’s nothing saying you can’t BCC yourself on emails as long as they don’t have PID or classified information in them. Those cranky emails from your boss? Totally legit to keep for your records, as well as the ones where she told you to do the exact opposite a week ago. If you are whistleblowing about something at your company, or in your volunteer organization, or ANYTHING ELSE, keep your own copy of the documents in question. Keep it secret, keep it safe. You may need it later.

NOTE: There are several circumstances in which you can get sued or prosecuted for removing proprietary information. Talk to a lawyer.

Go into security lockdown

Before you do anything dramatic, pre-emptively go into security lockdown.

Turn on your two-factor authentication, decrease your public social media profile, don’t leave a lot of hooks for people to attack you instead of the problem you’re pointing out.

You may feel silly and paranoid later for doing this, but it’s not going to be something you regret doing.

tl;rt – Too long; read Twitter

I can’t tell you what you should do when you see something going wrong. It’s not as straightforward as George Washington and his mythical cherry tree. I can give you some questions to ask yourself.

Is it true?
Can anything be solved?
Who is against me speaking? Who will be hurt?
Am I willing to pay a price to say this?

Choose. Choose again and again. If it’s true, it will not be less true in the future. You can choose exit then voice, loyalty then exit, exit and voice. But by having noticed something, you are forced to make a decision. Not doing anything is a decision.

People generally make better decisions when they know more about the problem space. That’s why I’m giving this talk

It is a service to tell your company something they don’t know. That doesn’t mean it will always end the way you expect. The stress of keeping secrets is really high. The stress of acting against your beliefs is astronomical. Either you break or your beliefs bend around to encompass horrible things you don’t want to support. At the risk of bringing up morals in a technical talk, you need to be able to live with yourself in the end.

Jobs are transitory, volunteer positions, money, fame, they come and go. But you only have yourself in the end.

Original slides

Pastrybox had a great take on Voice, Loyalty, and Exit.

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