No one embodies the vigilante archetype in modern day society more than the whistleblower. For those holding dark secrets, the whistleblower is a criminal, a traitor. For those seeking the truth, the whistleblower is a hero. Famous figures in the field including Mark Felt (Watergate scandal of the 70s) and Edward Snowden (NSA leaks) have certainly been labelled as both.
Outside of politics, however, there’s the issue of corporate whistleblowing. What happens when you see illegal acts in the workplace that have the potential to cause a domino effect that could drastically affect the lives of your colleagues and those you care about? Should you speak up?
Here’s why being a whistleblower in a corporate setting can be so tricky.
Why Whistleblowing Gets Complicated
There’s no glamour in whistleblowing. From the outside, the chance to go down in the history books for exposing a scandal and protecting people seems like a notable pursuit, and it no doubt is. But if you look at what’s happened to famous whistleblowers, you’ll realize that their lives are rarely the same afterwards.
Just look at Edward Snowden. He was forced to seek asylum in Russia after leaking those classified NSA documents, facing a lengthy and severe punishment if he returned to U.S. for violating federal laws.
Of course, this is a politically-motivated case of whistleblowing. In the corporate world, deciding to leak information, even if noble, carries risks.
Ethics & Law
In terms of ethics and law, whistleblowing occupies a grey area, a catch-22 of sorts. Reporting criminal activities taking place behind corporate walls or in a political office can give rise to new policies, bring about social change and even save lives. On the flip side, it can be seen as a breach of confidentiality and a leak of sensitive information.
For example, a new legislation in Australia allows the government to imprison whistleblowers and journalists who report on leaked information.
The irony behind this, however, is that there are often whistleblower protection policies out there to keep individuals safe from prosecution, even providing incentives for those exposing misconduct. Whistleblowing is, in essence, both encouraged and shunned at the same time.
In an article on humour website Cracked.com, Linda Almonte, a former employer at JP Morgan Chase described her experience as an “accidental” whistleblower during the 2008-09 recession. She worked as an executive at the bank during the 2000s, managing the credit card division.
She went on to discover a major issue at the bank – an illegal deal worth $250 million was on the table. Almonte reminded her colleagues that the deal was illegal, yet her managers insisted that she sign off on it anyway for the sake of posting higher earnings.
Resisting their pressure, Almonte pulled the sale from the market to protect the reputation of the bank. But doing this resulted in her termination on November 30th, 2009. She filed a wrongful termination lawsuit which led to massive media attention and investigations into the case.
What was the outcome for Linda? Aside from unwanted attention from journalists, she suffered a five-year unemployment streak, burglaries, and a long-standing legal battle.
The lesson here is that some corporations willingly support a culture of corruption and anyone who attempts to expose them, may face abusive treatment.
Looking at the story of Linda Almonte posted above, it’s clear that her reputation has garnered her both the title of “noble” and “enemy”. And the same can be said for all other whistleblowers of old or those in more recent years.
Taking the role of a whistleblower, either by choice or by accident, means that a person will have to accept as much animosity as they do support.
Coming Forward? Tread Lightly…
The decision to become a whistleblower is more a less a matter of conscience and comfort. There is no law that says you can’t engage in whistleblowing, but of course, there are laws that whistleblowers can violate if they’re not careful.
The word of advice we’d give here is a cliché – tread lightly. This is very important if you feel you should report illegal acts, corruption or any criminal behaviour within a corporate setting (or any setting for that matter).
Understand & Accept the Implications
The most important aspect of taking the whistleblower path is to accept the potential backlash and consequences that may come with it. Just because you’re fighting for what’s right doesn’t mean everyone will stand by your side. And that could mean the very corporation you work for may decide to cut ties with you, terminate you or worse, pursue legal action against you.
Learn From Past Whistleblowers
It’s been said that history is the best teacher and that statement certainly applies to whistleblowing. Learning from the examples of past whistleblowers can help you see patterns in how whistleblowers leak information. More importantly, reading their examples will give you insights into what mistakes they made and how you can avoid them.
Take Measures To Protect Yourself
Whistleblowing is like running into a house on fire to rescue someone and hoping you escape unharmed. The best person to do it is a firefighter – they have the training and equipment to rescue people without as much as risk as a non-firefighter.
The same goes for whistleblowing. Although there are no whistleblowing training schools and academies, it certainly helps to study up on legal matters, corporate policies and the logistics needed to expose criminal acts. Failing to study up on these matters can make your efforts fall flat or lead you to serious legal problems.
Build Your Case
Leaking information and presenting it as criminal is a bold move that determines confidence and fearlessness. The most vital way to do this is to gather all evidence to support your claims. Not only does this give you more confidence in your own theories, but it also strengthens the credibility of your case. Such evidence might include:
- Financial statements and transaction records
- Recordings of conversations / phone calls (be careful as this could be an invasion or privacy)
- Photos and videos (be careful as this could be an invasion or privacy)
- Internal communications (emails, messages, sms, social media)
- Data analytics reports (such as what’s available with our GLAnalytics Solution)
Taking The Moral High Road
Taking on the role of a whistleblower requires bravery. After all, it’s not easy to revolt against authority figures, even when what they’re doing is wrong. The easy way out is to either pretend that’s it not happening, or to quit one’s job (if that’s an option) so that they take a neutral stance while keeping a clean conscience.
If you are thinking about exposing a criminal act, make sure to prepare yourself logistically but also psychologically. That kind of preparation will serve you well in the face of opposition for doing what’s right.