Tech Whistleblowing Essentials: Navigating Coworkers and Unions

This resource is derived from the legal section of the Tech Worker Handbook and is meant to help you make informed decisions, to give a balanced and concrete overview of the possibilities and pathways.

“Working with coworkers to build support for changing company practices and reporting internally may work for some things, but there will likely come a time when the company doesn’t want to change and then you have to decide what to do. If you do speak out, it helps to understand where you are vulnerable and where you can go for help.” – William Fitzgerald, Campaign Staff at The Worker Agency

What to know about working with your colleagues 

“Figure out who you trust. There’s no one trick for developing trust. It’s relational. You begin to form relationships that go beyond the traditional hierarchy that structures almost all workplace environments. You begin to see each other as friends, not as competitors for status and standing. And, you begin to put your commitment to these relationships above your commitment to a given institution, or boss, or quarterly goal. Once you have an organized and trusting network in place, it can also facilitate safer whistleblowing — in which you can funnel information to people in this network who might not be under as much scrutiny.” – Meredith Whittaker, Faculty Director of the AI Now Institute at New York University

Your colleagues can help you to judge whether what you’re seeing crosses a line, and building solidarity at work can apply more pressure internally on the company to change. They may be able to provide you with contacts within the workplace whom you could speak with about the issue in order to resolve it internally, or to ask follow-up questions.

Raising the issues in a nonthreatening and constructive manner gives the institution the ability to do the right thing.

Your colleagues might inform management of your concerns, which may cause retaliation. If they have also noticed the same thing but are not ready to get involved, they may distance themselves from you in order to avoid any consequences that may arise.

It is important to be careful when discussing sensitive situations or potential cases of wrongdoing as it could make your colleagues or managers fearful that you may make the information public.

“Remember, protection of others is also your responsibility vis-à-vis co-workers or other witnesses who may face retaliation for disclosing supportive evidence or otherwise assisting you. Like you do with a reporter, legislator, or government investigator, you should commit to protect them and shield them from risks they assumed to help you.” – Tom Devine & Tarek F. Maassarani, The Corporate Whistleblower’s Survival Guide: A Handbook for Committing the Truth (2011), p. 89

How to check with your colleagues carefully? 

“When thinking about colleagues you could reach out to build solidarity, it’s vital to create what’s called a workplace chart. The chart is basically a spreadsheet that maps how co-workers relate to each other through formal and informal networks. You then think about who your most respected co-workers are and who you trust to have a confidential conversation. Prioritize starting with your most marginalized co-workers. You can ask a co-worker to meet you after the shift and check in on a couple of things. It’s important to get off the bosses’ property or company software to chat. The important thing then becomes just listening to them and seeing what their concerns are as well. If it goes well you can have further conversations and think about how to progress the issue.” – Daniel Gross, Labor Law for the Rank & Filer

Past whistleblowers and lawyers who work on such cases emphasized how important it is to frame things in a nonthreatening manner and in ways that would suggest you have the company’s best interest at heart. Potential ways to frame the conversation could include:

  • Does this seem off to you?
  • Does this cross the line?
  • Is this going to create liability?
  • Are we going to get into trouble over this?
  • Am I misunderstanding this, or will we have trouble with auditors?
  • What should be done to change this?
  • What would you do?

What to know about working with unions and organizing at work

If your company has a union, you can bring the information to the attention of union leadership. They can then anonymize the information and raise it themselves by citing concerns they hear from their members. They can also help build solidarity among coworkers to have a stronger case without you having to do the groundwork and expose yourself. In this case, it is still important to talk through the case with them and ensure you both are on the same page with how to proceed.

Some unions may also provide tangible support like referring you to a lawyer or even paying for legal costs.

“[Some] unions are so closely aligned with management that they would be reluctant to challenge your employer. Still others may support you in principle but may make a strategic decision not to push on the ethical issues you raise because they are in a protracted battle with management over pay, benefits, or other issues of higher priority.” – Devine & Maassarani (2011), p. 151

“It is easier to organize around a given issue once the information is public and in the press.” – Meredith Whittaker, Faculty Director of the AI Now Institute at New York University

“Utilizing a union remedy may result in the waiver of an employee’s right to obtain relief under other whistleblower protection laws, and damages available in grievance or arbitration proceedings are limited.” – Stephen Martin Kohn, The New Whistleblower’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing What’s Right and Protecting Yourself (2017), p. 64

What to know about working with civil society 

“Deciding what to tell and to who can be paralyzing, and whistleblowers should not have to navigate these decisions in a vacuum. You need someone you can trust, who can connect you to resources, and who can help navigate through the legal, ethical, and personal issues associated with whistleblowing. I wish The Signals Network existed back in 2014.” – Tyler Shultz, Theranos whistleblower

The civil society organizations that work with whistleblowers are some of the most experienced advocates you can have. They have both the institutional knowledge and the networks to ensure you receive protection and that your case elicits the change you seek, although nothing is ever guaranteed. Once you have an organization working on your behalf, it also sends a strong message to your employer that you have their support, which can help prevent some cases of retaliation.

“When I worked with a whistleblower from an Artificial Intelligence company, for example, we could decide to publish a blog with an NGO to discuss her disclosure. That way the company knows they had to go through the NGO, and they might be less aggressive.” – Ben Wizner, Director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project

A civil society organization can also reveal information on your behalf so your identity is further protected. The Dodd Frank Act created a category called “Analyst” whereby civil society organizations may reveal information to regulators on a whistleblower’s behalf without the whistleblower being involved in the process with the government. They have to be registered as an “Analyst” organization, so make sure they have the proper designation before pursuing this pathway.

The Signals Network is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that enables whistleblowers and international journalists to work seamlessly together to hold powerful interests accountable. As you read these legal considerations, remember that there is no one right way to speak out. This resource doesn’t and is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and the considerations discussed herein are not universally applicable. This is not a roadmap to bring the whistleblowing path to zero risk. 

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