Whistleblowers – the Martyrs for Upholding the Values

Setback in life is an opportunity to enrich your experience and to research and learn related topics. Due to some recent developments in my professional life, currently I am researching on whistleblowers and how they help an organization.

Who is a Whistleblower?

A whistleblower is an employee, former employee, or member of an organization who reports misconduct to people or entities that have the power to take corrective action. An employee could raise concerns about the activities of the organization they work for which are ethically or legally questionable.

Internal whistleblowers report misconduct to another employee or superior within their company or agency. Internal whistleblowing helps to minimize the organization’s exposure to the damage that can occur when employees circumvent internal mechanisms. Also let employees know the organization is serious about adherence to codes of conduct. Internal whistleblowing by employees helped WorldCom and Enron to bring wrongdoing at their own organizations to the attention of superiors.

In contrast, external whistleblowers report misconduct to outside persons or entities. In these cases, depending on the severity and nature of the wrong-doing, whistleblowers may report the misconduct to lawyers, the media, law enforcement or watchdog agencies, or to other local, state, or federal agencies.

Perception about Whistleblowers

Some see whistleblowers as selfless martyrs for public interest and organizational accountability. Whistleblowing is sometimes like climbing a mountain with a heavy load on one’s back. Whistleblowers may well encounter difficulties in their path, most of the time. Be prepared to loose something while you keep your self-esteem. It is said that “the system is unfairly biased against those who simply want to do what’s proper.” Even with legal protection, they may face retaliation in subtle ways – being shunned by co-workers, being closely supervised, or just feeling alienated.

Retaliation & Protection

Although whistleblowers are often protected under law from employer retaliation, in some organizations there exists a shoot the messenger mentality by corporations or person accused of misconduct. Unless they were able to gain media attention, whistleblowers in industry faced retaliation from their employers in the form of dismissal or other personal hardships.

Organizations need to have an effective open-door policy at all levels that allow employees to raise any issue. Lack of protection for whistleblowers will conceal problems rather than solving.

How does it help?

Whistleblowers help recognize troubles brewing in organization. Reckless leaders do not encourage whistleblowers (as it reveals their wrong doings), which will only make the whistleblower flee from calling a spade a spade. There are some whistleblowers who has the inner courage, who persistently keep fighting as martyrs for the values their organization upholds. Senior management should open a direct communication channel for those loyal whistleblowers at various levels of the organization structure, which will help the management sense the heat before things burn down.

Right to be Informed

The whistleblowers have a right to be informed of the outcome of the investigation. This is vital to keep up the spirit of the whistleblower and also sends positive signal of trust and openness to the employees.

Sarbanes-Oxley Corporate Reform Act

With the enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley Corporate Reform Act of 2002, internal and external whistleblower protection has been extended to all employees in publicly traded companies for the first time in the USA. The provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley:

  • Make it illegal to “discharge, demote, suspend, threaten, harass or in any manner discriminate against” whistleblowers
  • Establish criminal penalties of up to 10 years for executives who retaliate against whistleblowers
  • Require board audit committees to establish procedures for hearing whistleblower complaints
  • Allow the secretary of labor to order a company to rehire a terminated employee with no court hearing
  • Give a whistleblower the right to a jury trial, bypassing months or years of administrative hearings

Publicize the Organization’s Commitment

To create a culture of openness and honesty, it is important that employees hear about the policy regularly. Top management should make every effort to talk about the commitment to ethical behavior in memos, newsletters, and speeches to company personnel. Publicly acknowledging and rewarding employees who pinpoint ethical issues is one way to send the message that management is serious about addressing issues before they become endemic.

Investigate and Follow Up

Managers should be required to investigate all allegations promptly and thoroughly, and report the origins and the results of the investigation to a higher authority within a certain number of hours. Inaction is the best way to create cynicism about the seriousness of an organization’s ethics policy.

It is also suggested to assess the organization’s Internal Whistleblowing System by conducting an annual employee survey related to ethics. Examples: Do you believe unethical issues are tolerated here? Do you know how to report an ethical issue?

Suggested to have a dedicated phone line without caller identification where people can speak in confidence about their concerns and have an investigation started, if warranted.

It is said that “There is no more important thing in the modern workplace than to be able to express yourself freely and do the right thing.”

Reference: Encouraging Internal Whistleblowing in Organizations

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