Federal workers: If you blow the whistle, will you get new “office space”?

If you’re a federal employee who wants a new office, engaging in a bit of whistleblowing may be one way to get it. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the corner window office on the top floor.

David Fahrenthold, reporting for the Washington Post, describes a common form of retaliation toward whistleblowers in the federal government, leading with the story of Paula Pedene, an administrator with the Phoenix office of the Veteran’s Administration:

Pedene, 56, is the former chief spokeswoman for this VA hospital. Now, she is living in a bureaucrat’s urban legend. After complaining to higher-ups about mismanagement at this hospital, she has been reassigned — indefinitely — to a desk in the basement.

In the Phoenix case, investigators are still trying to determine whether Pedene was punished because of her earlier complaints. If she is, that would make her part of a long, ugly tradition in the federal bureaucracy — workers sent to a cubicle in exile.

In the past, whistleblowers have had their desks moved to break rooms, broom closets and basements. It’s a clever punishment, good-government activists say, that exploits a gray area in the law.

The whole thing can look minor on paper. They moved your office. So what? But the change is designed to afflict the striving soul of a federal worker, with a mix of isolation, idle time and lost prestige.

The last point is worth comprehending. It looks minor on paper. It gives Uncle Sam plausible deniability, an out to claim that being relocated to the basement is simply a routine change in office real estate.

Fahrenthold does a nice job of putting Pedene’s situation in the broader context of how whistleblowers are treated in the federal government, so his full article is worth your while if the subject interests you.

Tip of the iceberg

The bottom line remains: Whistleblowers often pay a price for exercising their consciences, sometimes a big one.

We know that retaliation for whistleblowing can get worse, much worse, than being moved to the dungeon. Various forms of bullying, harassment, and intimidation, as well as wrongful discipline and discharge, often enter the picture. Although a lot of our focus on whistleblower retaliation tends to be on the public sector, it also occurs frequently in the private and non-profit sectors.

Legal protections may exist for a given situation, but establishing the causal link between the whistleblowing activity and alleged acts of retaliation can pose a challenge. Furthermore, if the retaliation appears to be mild in severity, it may not be legally sufficient to prevail on a claim.

If you search terms such as “report on whistleblowing,” you’ll also see that whistleblower retaliation is a widespread, global phenomenon, even in nations where employment & labor laws are generally more favorable to workers. In essence, it’s part of the ongoing tale of how some people in power respond when they called on their wrongful behavior.

Resources

Those who are in potential whistleblowing situations should seek out legal guidance. They may wish to check these sites for information, advice, and legal referrals:

Government Accountability Project

National Employment Lawyers Association

National Whistleblowers Center

***

Hat tip to Susan Thomas on the Washington Post article.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Federal workers: If you blow the whistle, will you get new “office space”? | Beat the Bullies

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