Thanks to stronger protections and incentives, more employees are learning to blow the whistle on illegal practices when they spot them at their own companies.
In the 1944 Hollywood classic To Have and Have Not, Lauren Bacall’s character says to Humphrey Bogart’s, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” Thanks to stronger protections and incentives, some of which just took effect this summer, more and more employees are learning to blow the whistle on fraud and other illegal practices when they spot them at their own companies.
But employees still face a tough uphill battle when they attempt to blow Gabriel’s horn. As noted in the new guide by Stephen Martin Kohn, who heads the National Whistleblowers Center, “the risks facing whistleblowers remain—even strong cases are hotly contested, costly, and hard to win.”
Kohn hopes to shift the odds a bit by educating would-be whistleblowers about their rights and teaching them to protect themselves against those who may want to cover up the wrongs they wish to report. To that end, he has written The Whistleblower’s Handbook: A Step-by Step Guide to Doing What’s Right and Protecting Yourself.
The handbook gives historical context—pointing out, for example, that President Lincoln signed the first whistleblower law, a reaction to Civil War profiteering. Kohn goes on to explain that whistleblower statutes have evolved in a patchwork way, each a reaction to some egregious incident, such as Enron’s bankruptcy, the Challenger space shuttle explosion, the peanut butter Salmonella contamination, and most recently, the financial collapse. Consequently, in addition to hundreds of state laws, there are 50 different federal laws, yielding 50 definitions of protected activity, 50 statutes of limitations, and 50 different procedures for filing claims. That makes navigating the legal maze all the more challenging.
Kohn’s advice is not just to workers, nor is his aim to create an adversarial situation. In fact, his hope is clearly that more businesses will embrace workers who “do the right thing,” and negate the need for whistleblower protections. He writes that all employers have to decide “whether honesty and ethics are to be rewarded or whether outdated notions of loyalty, often demanded at the expense of safety or compliance with legal mandates, will govern the contemporary workplace.” He asks, “What company would not want a reasonable ‘heads-up’ so they could fix a problem before it became a major federal case?”
Examples of crises that could have been avoided if companies had heeded the warnings of whistleblowers are legion. Most recently, a U.S. Labor Department press release about a whistleblower retaliation award reveals that employees trying to report widespread fraud at the former Countrywide Financial Corp. were fired, as was the employee who tried to investigate those charges.
Security directors who want to increase the chances that insiders will have the courage to come forward should consider purchasing and distributing copies of this book or, at the very least, highlighting it in a corporate security newsletter or on their Web site.