One of the advantages of working for one of the premiere whistleblower hotline providers is that I stay up to date on notable GRC happenings. In my past life, I didn’t even really understand what a whistleblower was, much less why retaliation was an issue – after all, why would you want to continue working for a company that you just reported for shady activity? I certainly didn’t understand how a whistleblower could be a company’s greatest asset.
Until now. You’ve likely heard about the GM brouhaha. Let me share with you some of the terrifying highlights from the Bloomberg Businessweek report:
He [GM Quality Manager Courtland Kelley] found flaws and reported them, over and over, and repeatedly found his colleagues’ and supervisors’ responses wanting. He thought they were more concerned with maintaining their bureaucracies and avoiding expensive recalls than with stopping the sale of dangerous cars.
Photograph by St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office/AP Photo: In 2006 the wreck of a 2005 Cobalt killed two and injured one
The first death linked to its switch came in July 2005, when a Maryland 16-year-old, Amber Marie Rose, crashed her red ’05 into a tree. The airbag did not deploy. Although reports streamed into GM about moving stalls and disabled airbags for years, the company waited until Feb. 13, 2014, to issue a recall.
(Cliff Notes: It took almost TEN YEARS for the company to recall the affected vehicles.)
On page 93, a GM safety inspector named Steven Oakley is quoted telling investigators that he was too afraid to insist on safety concerns with the Cobalt after seeing his predecessor “pushed out of the job for doing just that.” Reading the passage, Kelley felt like he’d been punched in the gut. The predecessor Oakley was talking about was Kelley. [Bloomberg]
So here we have a textbook whistleblower meets retaliation case, followed by other employees being silenced in the fear of their careers ending much like Kelley’s did. Kelley still had a job with GM after the lawsuit in 2003, after he sued the company under whistleblower laws, but was pushed out of his job in the quality department, and essentially sent to the GM equivalent of Siberia.
Mary Barra, current CEO of GM, is issuing a new “Speak Up for Safety” program at GM. I imagine Barra realizes she has to do more than just launch a program to encourage employees to speak up. They’ve seen more than a decade’s worth of “speaking up for safety” being punished with inaction and career-ending blows.
My unease regarding the company runs deeper – other employees have admitted to being silenced in their concerns. More than 30 million vehicles have been recalled to date, but what if it’s not enough? Who knows how many vehicles GM has produced (or is still producing) with devastating safety concerns?
My concerns recently lead to a consumer decision – AKA putting my money where my mouth and mind are at. While I’ve admired Chevy’s recent designs, most notably the Malibu Eco, I didn’t buy one.
Instead, I went with a 2013 Hyundai Sonata, featuring 5 star safety ratings. The largest complaints facing the Sonata are that the interior isn’t nice enough and that it doesn’t meet its posted MPGs. Considering that I just upgraded from a 2003 Passat, whose nicest features included a missing hubcab, barely functioning radio, and a whirring cassette player, I think the critics are being a bit nitpicky. Then again, I’m hardly a sophisticated critic when it comes to cars – I love to drive, and I drive a lot, so the most critical features for me are fun handling and rapid acceleration, which the Sonata does beautifully, especially considering the price point.
(Isn’t he beautiful? His name is Sunny and he likes long drives to the beach…)
Ahem – this is not a Hyundai ad, I promise. It’s a warning to anyone who’s silencing their whistleblowers for the sake of revenue. It’s a short-lived strategy, as consumers don’t care to purchase vehicles that will end up looking like the first picture above – a car that could suitably pass for a crushed tin can.
I hope other consumers are taking these concerns to heart as well. This isn’t as simple as just a faulty switch – there’s a faulty company culture that supported silence and playing with consumers’ lives rather than recalling the vehicles, overhauling processes, and thanking the whistleblower that brought these issues to light. GM executives were worried about risking revenue and reputation that ultimately were lost anyway.