Whistleblower Support

Put simply, in a large and over-matured organization like the FAA, a Whistleblower is a threat. While they should be commended for their proactive contributions, instead they are despised, intimidated, even removed. A Japanese saying applies:

“The Nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

The key to surviving until you can retire with your pension is to lay low, quietly. Do not stand out.

So, here are a few tactics that are typically used by a rogue FAA manager, to retaliate against FAA Whistleblowers:

  • Isolate the ‘problem employee’. Treat them disparately. Reduce their access to regular work information shared with others.
  • Engender an atmosphere of distrust. Interrogate their coworkers, and make them suspicious of the loyalty and reliability of the ‘problem employee’.
  • Document a progression of alleged incidents and disciplinary actions. This includes provoking the Whistleblower to react. The ‘problem employee’ will eventually accumulate the documentation needed to justify a firing. Along the way, the employee might also just get the hint, and quit.
  • Make up wild allegations. Some of the most effective are not even shared with the ‘problem employee’; they are instead fed privately to other managers, and to specialists at HR, Security, and at the medical and legal offices, who then feed them on. This wider management cadre then works together to get rid of a nonexistant ‘problem employee’, who has no real similarities to the actual Whistleblower. And the slander is never revealed.
  • If the Whistleblower uses FOIA and other venues to seek information, give as little as possible. And, on all responses, be sure to ‘delay, delay, delay’.
  • As a fallback, attack the medical certification. Aviation is very sensitive about safety, which can be used to justify almost any action. Many employees are readily intimidated by the threat of losing their medical certificate.
  • In the most difficult cases (where the Whistleblower continues to fight back), fall back and offer a Disability Retirement. This works quite well for FAA, but it is a fraud against the Public and a huge waste of resources. And it has an added benefit to the FAA: the Whistleblower who accepts a mental health disability offer is disqualified from any credible testimony to Congress[1] or other venues. Thus, the perceived threat is completely eliminated.

And, why do FAA employees allow this to happen? Well…

  • We have seen what happened to others who spoke up before.
  • We have families to support. Most of us would never want to jeopardize our ability to provide for our family; so, there is an incentive to remain silent.
  • “Hey, it’s just a paycheck. I give it my least.” There goes employee morale.
  • Sometimes there are other illegal ‘perks’ at stake. At Troutdale, two-hour ‘early shoves’ ensured controllers got 40-hours pay while at work for less than 36-hours each week. So, the threat of losing this paid time-off tends to argue against reporting unsafe incidents.
  • We are human, and prone to corruption. In fact, many of us do not see anything wrong “…so long as nobody gets hurt….” [2]

OK, so most FAA employees stay quiet. What is it about Whistleblowers that makes them speak up?

Whistleblowers are just different. Most likely, they just have a greater sense of responsibility, which overrides the practical urge to stay quiet. All of us, when we are confronted with an aviation problem, have a choice: to act, or not to act. It often resolves into a moral dilemma.

Whistleblowing is hell, but in many work environments it is a necessary hell. Whistleblowers save lives; they reduce waste; they ensure programs deliver.

So, what are the psychological impacts on FAA Whistleblowers, when they experience retaliation?

The common set of tactics (isolation, antagonism, intimidation and disparate treatment) have a huge toll on the Whistleblower. Others in the same work environment often get dragged into the fray, too. Many Whistleblowers become short-fused and reactive. There is a predictable spillover to personal life. Consequences include divorces, depression, alcoholism, gambling and other addictive behaviors, insomnia and other physical health issues. In the extreme, suicides happen.

The typical maltreatment of a Whistleblower is very destabilizing. It is surreal. He or she cannot explain what they believe they are experiencing. To defend against rampant self-doubt and uncertainty, many Whistleblowers need to double down against their rogue manager. Thus, they become more rigid, more adamant about proper process. They also have to expend greater energy trying to comprehend their new situation. Time spent in self-analysis slops over into their interactions with others. Far more time is spent talking about their situation, which creates an impression of narcissism.

PTSD commonly haunts Whistleblowers for years after the initial trauma.

Whistleblowers are on the inside. So, how can a citizen help a Whistleblower?

It turns out that, at least in aviation, the key impediment to speaking up is the fear of retaliation after becoming the one Whistleblower brave enough to speak up. In fact, many silent FAA employees would speak the truth, if an investigation was to follow from a report by another person. Likewise, many other citizens will be more inclined to speak up (even if only anonymously) once they see they are not alone with their concern.

So, you can do a lot to support the work Whistleblowers need to do. For example, if you are a pilot who witnessed a controller error, or if you live under a noisy approach corridor and have information to share, your simple report may be the key catalyst to fixing the problem. Your comment from outside FAA may validate one Whistleblower’s concerns from inside FAA, thus may make all the difference. And, frankly, there are plenty of simple ways to ensure your identity is not part of your report, such as submitting the report anonymously via aiREFORM.

So, please: report early, and report often. You can help.

[1] It is not yet known if Congress has ever investigated the incidence of questionable disability retirements at FAA. A GAO Study could reveal the extent of these retirements, and might show an age-discriminatory pattern.

[2] A classic example of the social hazard of pervasive silence is, a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime. He spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. Germany, 1937.
reflected in the story of German pastor Martin Niemöller. His opposition to the rise of Nazi Germany earned him seven years in concentration camps. After WWII, he became famous for a quotation explaining how the Holocaust came to happen; just as with whistleblowers, everyone looked the other way while the problem grew, until eventually the problem grew out of control. Here is a link to a copy of his quote, including some historical context: ‘FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE SOCIALISTS…’

…for more Whistleblower Resources, please see:Whistleblower Resources page