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What happens to most whistleblowers?

Whistleblowing is the act of reporting wrongdoing, fraud, or illegal activities occurring within an organization. Whistleblowers play an important role in exposing corruption, misconduct, and unethical practices. However, the consequences for whistleblowers are often severe. Most whistleblowers face retaliation, legal battles, damaged careers, financial loss, and threats to their personal safety. Understanding what happens to most whistleblowers can shed light on the risks and realities they endure when speaking truth to power.

Retaliation from Employers

The most common consequence faced by whistleblowers is retaliation from their employer. Studies show that over 75% of whistleblowers experience some form of retaliation after coming forward. This can include being fired or demoted, denied raises or promotions, stripped of responsibilities, intimidated or harassed, socially ostracized, or forced to resign.

Retaliation occurs because the whistleblower’s report reflects poorly on the company or threatens the position of high-ranking individuals. The instinct is often to “shoot the messenger” rather than address the underlying misconduct. Whistleblower laws prohibit retaliation, but it still frequently occurs. And proving retaliation in court can be challenging and draining for the whistleblower.

Legal Battles

In addition to retaliation, many whistleblowers get embroiled in prolonged legal battles. Over 60% of whistleblowers file lawsuits for wrongful termination, defamation, or other issues stemming from retaliation. These legal battles can drag on for years and become financially and emotionally draining.

If whistleblowers pursue legal recourse, the corporation often responds with an army of highly paid attorneys intent on crushing the whistleblower’s credibility and resources. The imbalance of power and resources places whistleblowers at a disadvantage. Settlements often include non-disclosure agreements, allowing the company’s misconduct to remain secret.

Damaged Careers

Beyond specific retaliation, whistleblowers can suffer long-term damage to their careers. Their reputations are smeared, professional networks are severed, future employment prospects diminish, and past accomplishments are diminished or erased.

Blacklisted from their industry, many whistleblowers are never able to restore their careers to the same level. Younger whistleblowers may be unable to get their careers off the ground. The message sent is that whistleblowing leads to professional suicide. This has a chilling effect that deters others from coming forward.

Financial Loss

The career damage and legal battles take a significant financial toll on most whistleblowers. The median personal income loss after whistleblowing is estimated at $313,000. The total losses are much larger when factoring in legal fees, diminished future earning capacity, and the time devoted to dealing with retaliation.

Many whistleblowers go bankrupt defending themselves and become financially devastated. Very few whistleblower reward laws provide remuneration sufficient to offset the common costs endured. It’s often a sacrifice where whistleblowers trade their careers and savings to expose misconduct.

Threats to Safety

In some cases, whistleblowers also face threats to their personal safety or that of their family. A study by the Government Accountability Project found that over 25% of whistleblowers experienced physical attacks or threats of violence.

This generally occurs in cases where the whistleblower exposed high-level corruption, fraud by organized crime, or gross abuses of power. Those implicated may seek to permanently silence whistleblowers and deter others from coming forward. Whistleblowers may require personal security details and other protections.

Lack of Support

Beyond direct retaliation, whistleblowers often lack support from their peers or the public. For challenging powerful interests and bucking the status quo, they get labeled as disloyal, troublemakers, traitors, or snitches. Remaining employees distance themselves out of fear of also being retaliated against. This isolates the whistleblower and denies them support when they need it most.

Meanwhile, the public often views whistleblowers with skepticism rather than admiration for their courage and principles. All of this compounds the challenges whistleblowers already face for speaking truth to power.


The common thread is that whistleblowers face immense retaliation, hardship, and loss for doing the right thing. The personal costs typically far outweigh any rewards or justice. It’s an uphill battle where the odds and system are stacked against the whistleblower. Most regret having blown the whistle due to the severe repercussions they face.

The mistreatment of whistleblowers has consequences beyond just the personal suffering. It reinforces secrecy, unethical practices, and wrongdoing across organizations and society. Reforms are needed to better protect those who have the courage and conscience to speak out when others stay silent. More robust support systems and incentives are needed to encourage whistleblowing and reduce the backlash. Whistleblowers take on great risk for the greater good. Their experiences should illuminate the need for change.