I recently read a very interesting article by Jacqueline Klimas from The Washington Times about more than 50 Veterans Affairs workers claiming retaliation for blowing the whistle on the horrors they witnessed while on the job. What I found interesting was the amount of news coverage that dealt with employees getting reprimanded for reporting wrong and unethical behavior at the VA.
While the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 shields federal government employees and, until recently, intelligence agencies’ employees from unlawful retaliation, what about employees of other institutions? Whistleblowers should be encouraged and praised for reporting crimes, fraud and dangers to public health and safety, but instead many are not only DIScouraged, but outright reprimanded. The sad reality is that workers around the world receive retaliation from supervisors and fellow colleagues for exposing the truth.
Several incidents of whistleblower retaliation have gotten widespread media coverage. Even though more workers are witnessing fraud and violations of company rules, employees are feeling pressure not to say anything. According to the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey, nearly half of workers witnessed a violation of the law or their company’s ethics policy, but failed to report it. Ethical violations are estimated to be rising; yet official reports don’t support this, likely because workers fear the consequences of reporting them.
Retaliation can take many forms, from being left out of meetings and discussions to being fired or even injured. Companies must work hard to instill a “speak up culture” where employees feel safe to expose any wrong doing they witness and whistleblower hotline providers are an important part of that culture. A decrease in focus on making sure your work culture is ethical will lead to an increase bad corporate behavior.
The Cost of Blowing the Whistle
When Valarie Riviello, a nurse at Veterans Affair facility in New York, attempted to speak up about the truth, it only made her situation worse. Ms. Klimas mentions in her article that Valarie Riviello intentionally released a sexual assault survivor from a bed where she was strapped in for seven consecutive hours. Ms. Riviello was reprimanded and given a 30-day unpaid suspension. According to her, Ms. Riviello was just trying to do her job, a job that she had been doing for years.
According to multiple articles, the VA facility had left the same female patient under restraints for 49 continuous hours. The facility’s reasoning? It was convenient for the doctors who were enjoying their holiday weekend to have her strapped to the bed, so they would not have to deal with her. When did strapping someone to the bed for hours on end become convenient? Her case is just one among many cases worth investigating.
Although there are laws that deal with handling whistleblower retaliation, many companies do not exactly stay within the lines. Another old but classic example would be that of Karen Silkwood, the whistleblower who was on her way to meet a New York Times reporter to present findings on unsafe working conditions at the at the Oklahoma Kerr-McGee plant, where she was an employee. She died in a mysterious car accident on the way to meet the reporter.
While this example is definitely an extreme case, can you imagine the chilling effect that must have had on the other employees? Would anyone have dared speak up about any other unsafe, illegal or unethical behavior after that? Retaliation does exactly that; it instills fear into employees, rather than courage. With the VA case, nurses were afraid to report any wrong doing in fear that they would be fired.
The feeling of anxiety is common among employees who have witnessed fellow employees being fired over telling the truth about their work environment. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, General Motors recently silenced a whistleblower who was an employee for over 30 years. Courtland Kelley was fired for what he thought was an act of good faith. Kelly sued GM in 2003 for allowing faulty and dangerous cars to be released to the masses. The flaws associated with the vehicles were being linked to numerous deaths and accidents. Instead of GM responding to constant warnings with a massive recall, they remained silent and Kelly had enough. GM’s response? Kelly was terminated from his position. Other employees just like Kelly were too afraid to insist on safety concerns with the vehicles after seeing what happened to their predecessor. How can companies encourage an open and ethical environment, if they are condemning those that speak up?
How Effective is Your Whistleblower Hotline Provider?
Employees need a way to anonymously report any type of fraud or misconduct they learn of or witness within their organizations. Whistleblower hotline providers are an essential part of that strategy because they can offer not only a confidential telephonic hotline service, but also a web form, so employees, whether they have access to a computer or a phone are able to speak up and alert their companies to issues while still remaining anonymous. That gives employees confidence that they will avoid any retaliatory behavior. A good provider can integrate the whistleblower hotline into a full GRC solution. Employees can feel safe reporting an unethical action because each call is anonymous and encouraged, which is a perk of a great hotline provider. By having this type of tool in place, institutions can eliminate the “cold-feet” syndrome and encourage employees to speak up more.. It is important for any company to be able to provide this type of tool in order to create a more ethical environment for their employees. An effective whistleblower hotline provider accomplishes a sense of security and isn’t that what we all want to feel while at our jobs?