Whistleblowers are often culled out of FAA via Disability Retirements

The NY Times published an interesting article about efforts to improve the practice of diagnosing Personality Disorders. At first glance, most would think this has NOTHING to do with the FAA and Whistleblowers. Or maybe it does… take a closer look.

[link to the NYTimes article]

Without dwelling on the technical details, we all intuitively understand what a Personality Disorder looks like. Most of us have experienced a family member or a classmate or coworker who is ‘out there’; famously narcissistic, astonishingly cruel and anti-social, prone to excessive drama, and so forth. At the extreme, these and other behavioral patterns can generate a lot of discomfort. So, it seems reasonable that in 1952 the American Psychiatric Association developed their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the ‘DSM’. The DSM is worth a lot of money, in that insurance payments tend to happen only when diagnoses are made. This alone creates a controversial incentive to produce diagnoses. But the tendency to diagnose can be increased by other pressures, such as from rogue managers within corrupted organizations. Furthermore, employees can become so beaten down within corrupted organizations that they may WANT a diagnosis, in order to leave a hostile workplace and collect a disability pension. More on that later…

Personality Disorders are diagnosed by mental health professionals. At the start, an evaluation needs to be justified; somebody (normally the individual, or an employer) needs to submit ‘presenting concerns’, which define the odd behaviors that are problematic to ‘normal’ people. The evaluator then uses standardized tests and methodologies and may ultimately diagnose a Personality Disorder. When the evaluator is unable to definitively assign a Personality Disorder, he/she has the discretion to use a catch-all “not otherwise specified (NOS)” diagnosis, called “301.9 – NOS”. Many concerns have been raised about the 301.9 – NOS being a garbage-can diagnosis, commonly misused by employers and other authorities.

What does this have to do with Whistleblowers? At the heart of it, a Personality Disorder diagnosis means that an evaluator has concluded that a person is substantially ‘different’ from the normal population. Whistleblowers exhibit behavioral patterns centered on transparency, openness, speaking the truth. Place an observant Whistleblower into a safety-related workplace such as aviation safety inspection or air traffic control, and they should thrive while optimizing system performance. But, what if that safety-related workplace is corrupted, with a prevailing culture wherein errors and accidents are concealed? Well, in that case, the Whistleblower is non-normative; he or she stands out like a used disposable diaper left on the floor of an elevator, and tends to be treated accordingly.

When a Whistleblower speaks up, he or she becomes a threat to the status quo. There are many others at the Whistleblower’s worksite who perceive benefits from sustaining the program: less effort, more pay, less oversight, a sense of security, etc. They likely also fear severe consequences if the program is revealed, even more so if the corruption has been going on for years. So, one of the best methods for those in the prevailing culture to protect and sustain their corrupt program is to simply destroy the credibility of the Whistleblower. A bunch of tactics, relevant to DSM Personality Disorders, includes:

  • Ostracize. A rogue manager will cultivate a hostile work environment in which those participating in the corrupt practices will treat the Whistleblower like he/she is just a social misfit. Because in truth, at that workplace, THEY ARE A MISFIT.
  • Build a disciplinary history. A rogue manager will ‘ride the Whistleblower’ with a program of disparate treatment. Ideally, his/her efforts will show a progression of worsening behavior and increasing disciplinary action. Via this tactic, so long as the Union does not defend the employee, most federal employees can be driven to leave, or can be fired for their alleged disciplinary history, after just a year or two of pressure from a rogue manager.
  • If needed, go for the mental health disability retirement. What are the odds that Congress would ever ask a retired aviation safety inspector to testify after a horrific fatal air crash, if that retiree had left FAA on a mental health disability? Not likely. So, a rogue manager serves the program well if he/she creates a paper trail that supports a later diagnosis. There is no need for truth, just documentation, so that the problem is removed, and will not return later to haunt.
  • Make life so miserable that the employee WANTS to retire on disability. No doubt some people REALLY are driven crazy when subjected to a relentless hostile work environment. Many others may just say ‘to hell with it’ and take the best they can get as they leave. Sadly, even the most ethical person can eventually be reduced to joining a disability fraud, once they have endured enough abuse.


The NYTimes’ article, Clearing the Fog Around Personality Disorders” by Benedict Carey, has generated a hearty discussion, with more than 300 comments
(selected comments viewable via this link).


I added the following comment to the NYTimes comments (w/added links here)
– Jeff Lewis

Thanks for a valuable article, and many excellent and thoughtful comments. I would like to note the prevalent abuse of DSM-IV diagnoses to medically resolve ‘problems’ such as whistleblowers. Simple fact is, an ethical person is ‘disordered’ when they are employed within a corrupt work culture.

I spent 22-years as an FAA air traffic controller, and spoke up about a near-midair caused when a coworker watched a TV wired into our tower cab in Oregon, and later a concealed midair between a helicopter and a Cessna in the pattern at San Jose. I had the personality trait of speaking up truthfully about safety/waste issues. FAA managers retaliated in 1991 by liberally abusing their authority to compel me to be evaluated under DSM-III.

In 2007, I was inexplicably locked out from work and FAA officials threatened discipline if I did not spend $2,000 and get an evaluation. I set up a DSM-IV with the same PhD psychologist who evaluated in 1991. Those same FAA officials refused to talk with the PhD psychologist . He was baffled, and seeking to help, issued a 301.9 NOS diagnosis. FAA used this to attempt to retire me on disability. I challenged and won; FAA’s own doctor fully restored my ATC medical clearance on 1/10/08.

They then proceeded to fire me in November 2008, six months prior to retirement eligibility. I had to go to MSPB, where FAA offered to ‘settle’, by offering me a disability retirement. I declined.

I have since learned of many others who have been similarly damaged.