Do This One Thing to Help You Stand Up for Change

whistleblower vector illustration

Photo credit: (danijelala)

Ellen McGirt, an award-winning journalist who covers race, culture, and leadership for Fortune, put the question directly to Frances Haugen: 

“How do you recommend that somebody who needs to tell truth to power, to build a better way within their organization, do it?”

Here’s what Haugen – a data engineer whose revelations showed that Facebook prioritized profit over safety led to high-profile media coverage and a Congressional hearing – had to say: 

“I think one of the most important things for people to remember is that I am an outlier, even among whistleblowers. For every whistleblower you see, there are 1,000 subtle whistleblowers.”

A subtle whistleblower, she explained, is someone who makes sure information gets to an adjoining team, or a little bit higher up in the company, or talks to a staffer in Congress. 

“You do not have to stand in front of a camera to tell truth to power.”

But in either case, one thing helps more than anything else, says Haugen. 

“I think the most important thing is to find at least one person. It could be your spouse; it could be a friend; it could be a parent. You need to find someone you trust and can tell the truth to.”

This is critical, she said, because chances are you will be surrounded by others who are unwilling to acknowledge the truth. And living with that tension is extremely difficult. But having one person who can stand with you in your truth is vital. 

So, what if you are the person a prospective whistleblower turns to?

“Just being a mirror and helping them ground is incredibly transformative. I almost failed at Facebook because I had someone who was gaslighting me so badly early on,” Haugen recalls.

“Then, one weekend, I was looking after some teenagers. They were asking me about work, and I was describing what I was going through. Then this 13-year-old said with the righteousness of a teenager, “That is unacceptable.” 

“That,” said Haugen, “is what allowed me to go into work on Monday and say, ‘What’s happening to me is unacceptable.’” 

Frances Haugen

Frances Haugen spoke at the 2022 Pennsylvania Conference for Women in conversation with Ellen McGirt. This article is based on that conversation.