The State of Whistleblowing
We continue to read headlines of whistleblowers receiving large, sometimes, multi-million-dollar awards after successful prosecutions of companies for a variety of criminal and civil offenses. From these headlines, we may be convinced that whistleblowers continue to grow in influence and achieving real results – the improvement of overall corporate performance. I hate to burst the proverbial bubble, but it is difficult to reach such a conclusion. Why?
Companies continue to fear whistleblowers. To use a strategy of paradoxical intervention, companies need to change that attitude and change it now. I am not here to defend every whistleblower, but I am willing to defend the importance of a whistleblowing function – companies need insights and information on potential wrongdoing so that they can affirmatively take steps to stop wrongdoing, remediate the business’ conduct and ensure that the problem does not happen again.
A company that turns away or avoids whistleblowers is a company that wants to sweep issues under the rug in favor of short-term financial and performance gains. In the end, the long-term always trumps the short-term, and enlightened companies know the value of sustained profitability rather than short-term performance.
Some whistleblowers perceive events and issues in a strange way – they see conspiracies where none exist, and they are convinced they are right now matter what the evidence may show. On the other hand, some whistleblowers have saved companies millions of dollars, and even saved lives. I do not intend to sound so dramatic but we have examples of important whistleblowers in our history and we should not diminish the importance and courage of these people.
Aside from corporate attitudes of avoidance, compliance surveys continue to reinforce a dangerous trend – the number of incidents of retaliation against whistleblowers is on the rise in the corporate landscape. Companies are not only avoiding whistleblowers, they are attacking whistleblowers. This trend is incredibly dangerous and raises a real problem for companies seeking to establish a culture of trust and integrity.
Whistleblower retaliation is antithetical to any culture of trust and integrity. Such conduct committed by anyone in a company undermines any ability of a company to encourage reporting of concerns and problems. Whistleblowers have to be treated with respect and have to be listened to as a valuable source of information. A company’s treatment of whistleblowers sets an important example of whether a company is willing to listen, or whether the company has no interest in employee concerns.
Companies that retaliate against whistleblowers by definition lack trust and integrity. It is one of many essential requirements for a company to embed a culture of ethics and compliance.
In those instances where a company can prove that an executive, manager or employee retaliated against a whistleblower, the company has to aggressively prosecute the case and publicize the effort (with due consideration for privacy concerns). An aggressive disciplinary action against an individual who retaliates against a whistleblower can send a strong message and build important trust considerations with its managers and employees.
Whistleblowers will continue to stand up against corporate misconduct. Our history is replete with instances of whistleblowers who displayed courage and fortitude against negative influences and outright threats or instances of physical harm. Companies have to move past old attitudes and embrace a strategy that encourages whistleblowers, and ensures that employee concerns will be reviewed free of bias. Those companies that fail to respond appropriately to whistleblowers will suffer harm and their corporate cultures will suffer significant harms.