Ed. Note-today we conclude a two-part series from the Two Tough Cookies about some of the toughest choices a compliance practitioner may face. As important as this message is for the compliance practitioner, I hope that this series will be read by senior management as well….As Part I was concluded, the Tough Cookie had just been terminated.
Unfortunately for me, there’s no employment law preventing discrimination based on bullying, jealously or insecurity; no law against termination for simply not liking your subordinate or the subordinate’s ability to garner respect. The hostile work environment I suffered through the entire prior year was due to her insecurity around me, and not based on any protected class. I simply got the shaft for speaking up and expressing the concerns of the team. Her mistake? She gave me nothing left to lose.
I’ve had a few weeks to cool down since that initial rush of anger, and revenge is best when served with cold, hard logic, and irrefutable facts. Throwing caution to the wind (well, not entirely), I made the ultimate act of moral courage, and sent a letter to executive management, asking that they review the character of the person that they were entrusting the reputation of the company with. For the first time in my career, I was a whistleblower, one of the “one percenters” I used to joke about that throttled the hotline with endless unsubstantiated complaints of “he said, she said.” Now, I am totally sympathetic to the courage it takes to step up to the plate, stand apart from the crowd, and speak up in the hopes of being an earnest agent for positive change.
When asked what resolution looked like for me, I replied that I was satisfied that the company took my complaint seriously, that this investigation was taking place. I also asked the investigator to thank the company for taking me seriously. I was asked on several occasions “You want her fired, don’t you?!?” and not once did I say yes, even though I wished for it desperately. My response was merely “I just want the company to be aware of the character and qualifications of the person in this most important role, and that appropriate actions be taken when all is said and done.” I did mention it would be nice to have a job again, but that I had little hope of returning.
What did I expect as an outcome? Nothing. What did I get as a reward for that final act of moral courage? Boatloads. First, and foremost, by taking my time, and reducing my concerns from 20 pages of emotional ranting to less than a handful of concise, fact-laden pages, I came across as legitimate. Second, my patience and due diligence paid off – by taking my time to sort through my emotions and only give a factual account of events, and seeking out someone in authority to hear my case, I ensured that my voice would be heard. The company listened. An investigation ensued. The circumstances were weighed, measured, and she was found wanting.
Being in the integrity department is a tough spot to be in – you are supposed to represent the even hand of justice, you are supposed to be the unbiased, objective observer who gathers facts and makes recommendations, when someone behaves badly towards another. No one EVER stops to think who you can call if you are the one on the receiving end of misconduct, or if you become aware of an issue and confidentiality provisions silence your voice (such as in the case of the dual duty corporate counsel and compliance pro) and hobble your effectiveness to effect positive change. If you find yourself in a dilemma such as mine, circle the wagons, but as Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “Trust, then verify.” Always remember, Integrity and Compliance is not a team function – it is most often singular acts of moral courage taken by brave individuals that override personal risk and reward. High Integrity often demands that you be willing to risk everything for the sake of integrity, to be labeled a pariah, to be shunned, to be shown the door for voicing the unpopular decision. But many times what is said is what is needed to be said. Just don’t let the situation take you by surprise like I did, or for heaven’s sake, don’t wait an unreasonable time for something to change. When I first suffered demoralizing behavior at her hands and got no relief, I should have escalated the matter, going directly to the TOP of HR, to the TOP of legal, and outlined my concerns to insulate myself from retaliation months earlier. I did not. Instead, I chose to simply wait for the change I had been promised, reluctant to make waves, fearful of establishing a reputation as a “whiner” instead of a “winner.” While my intentions were good, the outcome for me, clearly, was not. Here, the compliance leaders were too inexperienced to understand or appreciate the adverse repercussions from both their actions and inaction.
While I still am searching for that high integrity organization that will recognize and appreciate the value I bring, the insights I can share, and the wealth of experiences that have shaped who I am today, I usually sleep well at night, knowing that I have done no wrong. I have left no casualties behind, and I have always treated people with respect, sometimes more than they deserved. I understand my former boss is no longer in a role where she manages people, which is a good thing. In fact, I hear she may be getting a dose of her own medicine, but I sincerely hope not – no one deserves the relentless bullying and belittling, facing each work day fearful of the outcome. If, through each of life’s trials, we can see the lesson, then we can move forward. I know I am a better person for it, even though I still am suffering the consequences of an extended unemployment. I daily struggle with the choice of telling the truth about why I left that company (retaliated against for reporting a violation), and opting for a more benign “reason for leaving” (departmental reorganization). The stigma of being perceived as an “undesirable” candidate if I am honest about blowing the whistle is a real concern of mine, and I have been passed over in favor of other candidates because such a short stint at my level does not come across well to potential employers. I don’t want to be caught in a lie, because recovery from that route is nearly impossible when you claim to be an “Integrity” professional. I face a real Hobson’s choice, and it is the one thing that keeps me up at night since whichever path I choose can have lasting negative implications for me both professionally, and personally. I am hopeful for the future – the eternal optimist in me, I guess. I do not relish the prospect of either having to live with a lie, or an interminable time of unemployment and the risk of losing my home and my livelihood for taking the high road – the very dear price of moral courage.
Who are the Two Tough Cookies?
Tough Cookie 1 has spent the more than half of her 20+ legal career working in the Integrity and Compliance field, and has been the architect of award-winning and effective ethics and compliance programs at both publicly traded and privately held companies. Tough Cookie 2 is a Certified Internal Auditor and CPA who has faced ethical and compliance challenges in a variety of industries and geographies and recently led a global internal audit team. Their series “Tales from the Crypt: Tough Choices for Tough Cookies” are drawn largely from real life experiences on the front line of working in Integrity & Compliance, and personal details have been scrubbed to protect, well, you know, just about everyone…