Business man blowing orange whistle on blue background 2x1
Remote work has sparked a surge in whistleblower complaints. There's more free time, less risk, and more support to call out wrongdoing when you work from home.EHStockphoto/Shutterstock; Rachel Mendelson/Insider

Why do so many remote workers decide to speak up about their employers?

He didn't know that his act of defiance was at the forefront of a national trend when he blew the whistle on his former employer.

A photographer for the DOE was hired by the agency. The leaked photographs were of a meeting between the Energy Secretary and the CEO of one of the country's largest coal companies. The executive gave a hug to the former governor of Texas after presenting a pro-coal regulatory plan. After the photos were published, he was banned from taking his laptop with him, and his photo equipment was taken away.

He claims that the department never investigated or confirmed that he was the whistle blower. The photos were uploaded on a shared drive by other employees. He admitted to leaking the photos in a New York Times article and said he wanted to expose the close relationship between the two men. He filed a complaint with the department, claiming that he was a whistle blower, a designation that protects people who report ethical or legal violations, fraud, abuse, or other wrongdoing inside companies and government agencies from being retaliated against. The department came up with a solution that both parties agreed upon.

He couldn't find a job after he blew the whistle. He told me that he didn't get a reply from his interviewers after they searched for his name.

The highs and lows of being a whistle blower are becoming more common. Peiter "Mudge" Zatko is one of a number of high-profile whistle blowers who have come forward over the past few years. It's not limited to tech companies. Over the past few years, the Securities and Exchange Commission has seen a huge increase in complaints. Since the start of the program, the SEC said it has received over 12,000 tips, a 75% increase from the year before. This fiscal year, the program set a new record with over 12,000 tips. In the first year of the program, it got just 3000 tips.

Extra time and space workers gained from the Pandemic and the rise of remote work may be to blame for the surge in complaints.

How remote work sparked a flood of whistleblowers

Employees began to rethink their relationship with work after the Pandemic hit. Many people came to terms with malfeasance happening at their companies because of the space between employer and employee. MacGann said that he had time to think about his decision to come forward about the treatment of workers at the ride-sharing company.

Mary Inman, a partner at Constantine Cannon who has been representing whistleblowers for 25 years, told me that virtual work has encouraged whistleblowing because employees don't develop the same loyalty to their employers as they would in person. She said that the risks seem farther off when you are in a remote area. Workers around the country have reconsidered their jobs and quit in large numbers. People were more willing to blow the whistle because of the naval-gazing.

Joohn Choe worked for Facebook after the Capitol riots. While working from home, he discovered that the company was allowing people who had been blacklisted by the US government to use the platform. He filed a complaint with the Treasury Department and the Department of Justice because he was fed up with the company dragging its feet. Meta was accused of violating US sanctions by not removing accounts of the individuals. Choe knows that the remote environment can set your standards about what forms of exploitation you're willing to accept.

It ends up being 'What am I getting out of this job?' without those conformity signals of going to the office. He wanted to know what the work was doing to him. It's easier to ask these questions when you're in the quiet of your own home.

The CEO of the company echoed this idea. She said that tech companies try to foster a culture of "groupthink" where the work is more than one person's opinion. This leads to a situation of social intimidation and peer pressure where employees who share a secret are seen as disloyal or a snitch. Some of the barriers to whistleblowing can be removed by remote work.

"If you're in an office all day, every day with everyone else and people who are making the Kool-Aid, drinking the Kool-Aid, buying the Kool-Aid, it makes it so much more difficult," she said.

Teresa Ross raised concerns about her employer back in 2011. She was told she wasn't a team player after she told her superiors that the company was submitting false insurance claims. She was told not to tell her subordinates what she was worried about. She told me that when the company brought in a psychologist, she started to question her sanity. She filed a complaint under the False Claims Act after meeting Inman at Cannon Constantine. The case was kept under wraps for eight years. Over $6 million was the amount the government settled for.

The cases of whistle blowers are getting more and more like Ross'. The SEC whistleblowing program has awarded $229 million in 103 cases this year. The dollar amount was more than the entire amount awarded from 2011 to 2020. These are awards for providing information that led to the success of SEC and other agencies. The program has paid out more than one billion dollars.

A surge of COVID whistleblowers

The whistleblowing boom was triggered by the Pandemic. The public's awareness of COVID-19 was kicked off by a whistle blower. Li was accused of spreading rumors and disturbing the social order after he warned his colleagues about the virus. He passed away in February 2020.

Whistleblowing complaints about worker safety increased in the US during the first few days of the Pandemic. Between February and May of 2020, the number of complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's whistle blower program increased by 30%.

Dawn was one of the whistle blowers. She didn't know what a whistle blower was. She knew what she heard and saw when she worked as a nurse. During the height of COVID, she observed cases going unreported to the health department, medical documents being shredded, and masks not being issued to prisoners. She said her supervisor told her to get out of his office after she started raising concerns.

Project South and the Government Accountability Project filed complaints with the Office of Inspector General on her behalf after she was demoted. According to the complaint Project South filed, the facility did not follow the guidelines for sterilizing inmates and allowed people with documented illnesses to be moved to the facility. She said she didn't want to be a part of that. Since she began speaking out in the summer of 2020, she has had difficulty finding a long-term job.

Companies cracking down

Many businesses are in a precarious position because of the increasing willingness of everyday people to speak up about wrongdoing at their companies. It is hoped that this will lead to a corporate culture shift where employees are able to raise concerns without fear. According to experts, the rise in whistleblowing may only cause executives and managers to surveil their workers more.

According to Kate Kenny, a professor at the University of Galway and a researcher for Whistleblowing Impact, the use of keyboard tracking, nondisclosure agreements, and lawsuits against whistle blowers are on the rise. According to a Washington Post report, the use of facial recognition and other monitoring technologies has doubled in the last year.

The Integrity Sanctuary, a safe haven for international whistle blowers in Canada, has been established in the past decade. There is software for people to report things that are not true. The culture shift brought on by the Pandemic could lead to more permanent change according to Inman. She believes that companies are in a vulnerable position because of the need for whistle blowers.

The power of a whistle blower in helping law enforcement to root out fraud cannot be replaced.

In New York, she is a journalist. She is a writer for The New York Times and other publications.

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