Whistle-blowers are in the news more and more, but some organizations don’t seem to have caught up with the trend, or the fact that retaliation is illegal. They don’t seem to realize that negative reactions to a whistle-blower can make them look petty—and guilty.
Take two front page stories in our area newspaper on the same day this week. Both were about whistle-blowers who put their jobs on the line to come forward. One was fired, the other was suspended and later resigned.
In one case, The Journal News reported, a member of a New York town’s financial staff, the supervisor of fiscal services for more than 10 years, testified at a hearing that she notified several of her superiors that the town’s revenue projections were overestimated—on a financial statement needed for a bond application. She also reported improper money transfers—one made to the town supervisor. The woman was ignored, told to keep quiet, and eventually fired.
Not only did the town officials make no move to right the wrongs she reported to them, one official denied ever being told of potential corruption or fraud. Meanwhile, the town, which is also being investigated by the FBI, has filed perjury and other charges against this former employee.
The second newspaper article is about a former security expert at the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York. Because he feared the plant was vulnerable to a terrorist attack, he voiced his concerns to supervisors. In June he was suspended.
He filed a 76-page lawsuit in the U.S. District Court alleging misconduct and retaliation against him. The Indian Point employee alleged that security was inadequate and that documents and internal reports were falsified.
Unfortunately these sound like other stories in the news over the past few years following the financial crisis. At Lehman Brothers, the company’s chief risk officer, Madelyn Antoncic warned Dick Fuld, the CEO, that their risk in mortgage-backed security bets was too great. Her warnings were ignored. Her reward was to be fired.
The knee-jerk reaction of many organizations seems to be; get rid of the employee, blame the employee and then go to court. It appears that the whistle-blower protections under the Dodd-Frank Act, such as prohibiting retaliation against whistle-blowers, is still a mystery to some organizations.
Fraud experts contend that the burden is on the organization to see that employees are comfortable in coming forward and that their concerns are addressed. They advise companies to have hotlines available for employees to provide whistle-blower tips—and to act on those tips.
Whether or not a company is guilty of fraud, firing an employee for coming forward can make the organization look guilty and cause a whole host of other problems, including risk to the company’s reputation. Public entities and corporations would do well to study Dodd-Frank and put a plan in place before an employee does come forward. Have organizations learned nothing from Watergate? The cover-up always leads to exposure of the crime.