Analysis: speaking out can mean legal fees, travel expenses, health supports and loss of income due to career change

By Kate Kenny and Meghan Van Portfliet, NUI Galway and Stephanie CaseyTransparency International Ireland

It is more than a year since the bill was settled in one of the country's most well-known whistleblowing cases. Maurice McCabe suffered serious retaliation and a sustained smear campaign for his efforts to speak up about Garda malpractice. April 2019 saw the former sergeant settle proceedings against the State and Tusla, the child and family agency. The final bill was not disclosed, but significant legal costs were likely involved given the 11 sets of High Court proceedings that had to be dealt with.

Last September an RTÉ Investigates programme showed the high price faced by whistleblowers and their families when trying to expose uncomfortable truths. ESB's Seamus O’Loughlin described the financial and psychological impact: "I am still out on my own engaged in a legal process that is costing us an absolute fortune".

Many of us are aware of the experiences of high-profile whistleblowers such as these, but what is the actual cost of speaking out for other whistleblowers? And who pays it?

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Katie Hannon reports on Maurice McCabe's High Court case against the State

A recent report from researchers at NUI Galway and Warwick Business School is the first of its kind to quantify the financial burden that some whistleblowers bear. The report is based on interviews with 58 whistleblowers and 17 experts, along with quantitative data from a survey of 92 whistleblowers. The focus was on those who had to leave their job because they had spoken out. While most respondents were from the United States and United Kingdom, a wide range of countries from Ireland to India were also included.  A range of jobs and sectors were represented, including finance, health, education, media and charity work.

What did the researchers find? Speaking out can mean increased costs relating to legal fees, travel expenses, health supports due to stress and the loss of income due to career change. On average, respondents incurred total costs of up to €243,936 related to their disclosure. For those who specifically reported lost earnings, the total cost amounted to €543,723 since disclosure, with a yearly average of €65,331.

One whistleblower, Frank, reports how his lawyer cost $20,000 to retain and $500 an hour for work on the case. "I'm thinking", he recalls "'you know what? that’s a lot of money and I didn’t do anything wrong'."

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland. RTÉ Investigates' Barry O'Kelly reports on the price whistleblowers and their families can pay

But the report only tells one side of the story. If a whistleblower takes legal action against an organisation for reprisals experienced—which can include bullying, demotion, being given menial tasks or even dismissal - the organisation may decide to go to court. Cases can drag on for years. David, another whistleblower in the study, noted that it has been 14 years since the original disclosure. "The defendant (the organisation) in the court case has the best counsel money can buy and can throw money at it ad infinitum."

While the costs can be high for whistleblowers, protracted legal cases can be expensive for employers and those connected to them. When the organisation is in the public sector, the cost of the legal battle is ultimately borne by the public through taxes. Private sector organisations pay legal fees to battle a whistleblower from resources that would otherwise go to shareholders, employees, or investment in the organisation itself. Whatever our personal outlook regarding whistleblowers, when they suffer, the costs are potentially borne by us all.

The forthcoming EU 'Whistleblowers’ Directive may help avoid some of the costs. It aims to stop whistleblowing cases from ever getting to this point. The Directive requires most organisations with more than 50 employees to introduce internal channels and procedures for whistleblowing. This will be a big improvement. Research by Transparency International Ireland showed that as recently as 2016, seven out of 10 private/not-for-profit sector employers reported having no system to promote whistleblowing in the workplace. Nine out of 10 had no whistleblowing policy or guidance, with only slightly more providing access to a hotline or legal advice channel for employees. When whistleblowing systems and policies are absent, and whistleblowers are ignored and/or mistreated, cases are more likely to end up in court, and to cost large sums of money.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Kate Kenny on why people become whistleblowers

The new EU Directive will require organisations to enable their staff to speak up safely. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available to help organisations implement and maintain effective ‘speak-up’ arrangements. Best practice recommendations are available in the recently published ‘The Whistleblowing Guide’ that features research funded by ACCA among others, and Transparency International Ireland offers its expertise and assistance in this area via their Integrity at Work programme.

Adopting such recommendations not only saves organisations – and society – money, but also helps protect organisational reputation and brand. It ensures that society is fair and democratic by providing a way for illegitimate practices to come to light. If whistleblowers are not treated appropriately, the costs can really add up. While recent years may have seen some whistleblowing bills settled, let us hope that 2021 sees far less need for them in the first place.

A Zoom seminar on Whistleblowers After Disclosure: Financial Impacts, Career Paths, and Survival Strategies takes place on Tuesday January 19th

Prof Kate Kenny is Professor of Business and Society at the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway. She is the author of Whistleblowing: Toward a New Theory and co-author of The Whistleblowing Guide, Dr Meghan Van Portfliet is an Associate Member of the Whitaker Institute at NUI GalwayStephanie Casey is Programme Manager of the Integrity at Work programme at Transparency International Ireland


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ