No one loves a sneak, but when it comes to unethical behaviour we still need what they do.
The way we react to whistleblowers tends to be ambiguous. Depending on who you are, and what you represent, these sneaks are a dangerous force for evil or they’re brave, public-spirited individuals. Snowden the NSA leaker has just narrowly missed being voted Time magazine’s person of the year. Does that make him a hero — or villain?
“No EU member states defended Edward Snowden as a whistleblower,” complained Mike Harris head of the freedom of expression group, Index on Censorship
Yet we badly need sneaks willing to call time on misbehaviour by individuals or entire companies and must somehow encourage them.
But even if employees blow the whistle on themselves by confessing to some error the reaction can be punishing.
Take the real-life case of the trader from a well-known bank who forwarded an e-mail to a colleague in another bank. Too late he realised it had confidential information later down the chain.
The trader immediately contacted the compliance officer. While the guilty e-mail was stopped from leaving the bank’s computer, the unfortunate trader was still reprimanded, fined and his promotion prospects reduced. He and colleagues got the clear message: whatever you do, don’t admit to a compliance breach.
Right to worry
Research confirms people fear to speak up about ethical or legal lapses out of concern for their own jobs. They’re right to worry. Michael Woodford, the onetime president and CEO of Olympus, was fired after accusing the Japanese electronics giant of fraud.
Branded a villain at first, Woodford ultimately became a hero, receiving serious financial compensation. He now spends his time promoting good governance.
Then there’s Bradley Birkenfeld, the UBS renegade who helped expose massive offshore tax cheating by wealthy Americans — only to spend 40 months in jail for his role in the illegal activity. Hero or villain? Either way he paid a steep price for blowing the whistle. What lessons can we draw from these seemingly disparate cases?
There seems an unspoken rule separating heroes from villains. It is mainly how they go about it. In companies, for example, it can be acceptable to blow the whistle using “official” internal channels, as opposed to going to outside authorities–as Birkenfeld and Snowden both did.
These internal channels might include reporting misdeeds to a line manager, the boss’s boss, or an independently managed hotline that usually promises anonymity.
Still, surveys show employees seldom use these channels. According to U.K.-based Public Concern at Work, three out of four who do report wrong doing complain nothing happens as a result. Most (60%) say that they didn’t even get a response from management.
“The combination of the findings in our report demonstrate why speaking up in the workplace may seem futile or dangerous to many individuals,” says CEO Cathy Jones. “While organizations may be getting better at addressing wrongdoing, they are still shooting the messenger and overlooking crucial opportunities to address concerns quickly and effectively.”
The reality for whistleblowers remains harsh. Many face retaliatory investigations, harassment, intimidation, demotion, dismissal and blacklisting. At least 15 percent are fired and those at a more junior level are more likely to be ignored than those in senior positions. The latter are more likely to be dismissed.
Pentagon whistleblower Ernie Fitzgerald describes whistleblowing as “committing the truth”, because employers often react as if someone speaking it is somehow committing a crime.
Where companies behave badly regulators are increasingly eager to step in. American Federal law has long supported whistleblowers, dating back to profiteering during the Civil War.
More recently, US and now UK legislation have set up whistleblower programs with powerful financial incentives to report trade violations.
In the US for example, the SEC recently rewarded an anonymous whistleblower with a staggering $14 million, the largest amount ever paid by the agency.
“Our whistleblower program already has had a big impact on our investigations by providing us with high quality, meaningful tips,” says SEC chief Mary Jo White. “We hope an award like this encourages more individuals with information to come forward.”
Despite these efforts, governments, employers and society at large continue to exhibit mixed feelings toward whistleblowers — even when they use official channels.
10 Survival tips for potential whistleblowers
- Consult your loved ones.
- Test the waters for support among your workplace peers.
- Before breaking ranks, consider working from within the system.
- Be on guard not to embellish your charges.
- Seek legal and other expert advice early.
- Stay on the offensive with a well-thought-out plan.
- Maintain good relations with administrative and support staff.
- Network off the job: identify potential allies such as elected officials, journalists, or activists with a proven track record.
- Keep an ongoing, detailed, current record as you go.
- Do your whistleblowing work on your own time and with your own resources, not your employer’s.