Poster Paper: Politics and Whistleblower Retaliation

Saturday, November 5, 2016
Columbia Ballroom (Washington Hilton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Colin Angus Leslie and William G. Resh, University of Southern California

Whistleblowers can be valuable employees for an organization but may suffer arbitrary retaliation or threats of retaliation for disclosing wrongdoing. Uncovering fraud, waste, abuse, and unlawful conduct may become increasingly important for government agencies as both the complexity of government tasks and dependence on contractors grows. As a result, it is important that an agency’s personnel policies and practices adequately protect whistleblowers against retaliatory behaviors based on arbitrary bases—particularly retaliations intended to protect or advance ideological, partisan, or economic interests, or institutional ambitions in spite of the rule of law.

This research contributes to this mission by examining reports of retaliation by federal employees and by uncovering some of the underlying causes of retaliation. We combine several distinct sources of data to measure the influence of political patronage and pressure on the propensity of perceived retaliation for whistleblowing in federal agencies. First, we utilize a cross-sectional time-series dataset from the Merit Principles Survey (MPS), a periodic questionnaire provided to federal employees that gathers information on a host of employee perceptions concerning their work environment. Whistleblower behaviors and perceptions of retaliation are among the MPS questions and will be the primary focus of analysis. In addition to the individual-level attributes from MPS data will be a number of institutional-level attributes of the organizational and political environment in which these employees are embedded. We use a multi-level modeling approach to exploit congressional testimony data from the Library of Congress, contracting data from the Federal Procurement Data Source, agency personnel data from the Office of Personnel Management, federal budget data, and textual analysis of presidential papers ( (among other sources) as institutional-level variables. Our intent is to gauge the influence that politicization (in terms of patronage), agency salience, structure, and institutional agendas have on the propensity of whistleblower retaliation.

The results of research could potentially point to weaknesses in federal protections of whistleblowers, and specifically could help federal policymakers to target areas of concern and thereby more fully harness the value of employee disclosures of agency wrongdoing. Agencies within the U.S. federal government have growing incentives to uncover opportunistic activity that may be costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year. Whistleblowers, however, occupy a tricky position within an organization. Often the organization and its leaders profit from the activity and have strong incentives to stifle any potential disclosures. Contrary to a common stereotype of the whistleblower as “disgruntled employee,” prior studies have found that whistleblowers in fact have high organizational commitment, mission commitment, and performance attributes (Near & Miceli, 1985; Brewer & Selden, 1998). The value of such employees implies that providing effective avenues for disclosure of bad behavior is an important component of personnel policy.


Near, J. P., & Miceli, M. P. (1996). Whistle-blowing: Myth and reality. Journal of Management, 22(3), 507-526.

Brewer, G. A., & Selden, S. C. (1998). Whistle blowers in the federal civil service: New evidence of the public service ethic. Journal of public administration research and theory, 8(3), 413-440.