Whistleblowers have been in the news a lot lately: Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who some call a whistleblower; Avantair’s whistleblower-initiated shutdown; and the latest TWA 800 conspiracy theorists (who also style themselves as whistleblowers, although 13 years after the NTSB’s probable-cause report was issued seems more like a whistle-whisperer than -blower)–they have all gotten the word a lot of play over the last few weeks. Whether we consider these particular individuals whistleblowers or not, whistleblowers are a fact of life in the government and in corporate America. They can be disruptive to any organization, since in many instances they uncover misconduct that an organization would rather never see the light of day. And there’s nothing like a scandal to ignite a media frenzy. No need to wait for prime time; with the speed of cyberspace, stories can spread around the globe in nanoseconds.
Regardless of whether the allegations made by the whistleblower are ultimately determined to be correct, responding to the charges made is always an expensive and time-consuming effort for all involved. The media blitz that follows can ruin reputations even when charges are determined to be false or incorrect. (Good luck erasing any of the negative reports from the immortality of Internet search engines.) If the allegations of corruption or other criminal activity are true, severe penalties can result, including expensive fines and long jail sentences.
So what can we do to stop those pesky whistleblowers? Well, of course make sure your organization, be it public or private, never engages in conduct that could be considered misconduct, fraud, waste, abuse, unsafe, illegal and so on. But how do you do that without listening to the people who are trying to tell you that something is wrong? Here’s the rub with most whistleblowers: most try to work within the system, alerting their supervisors or company officials to wrongdoing. They become whistleblowers only when their repeated efforts to bring attention to a problem are rebuffed, or when a disaster happens and their repeated attempts to get wrongdoing fixed are suddenly exposed. Think Sherron Watkins at Enron, who tried to alert CEO Kenneth Lay to the looming financial scandal. Or more recently, think Harry Markopolos, who tried for eight years to get the SEC to do something–anything–about what ended up being an obvious Ponzi scheme by Bernie Madoff. It wasn’t until some $18 billion was lost from client accounts that officials at the SEC finally “heard” what Markopolos was trying to tell them.
But we don’t have to look to the financial sector for whistleblowers. We have plenty in aviation who don’t come to national attention until an accident kills an airplane full of people. Take the 2009 Continental/Colgan accident in Buffalo, N.Y. Whistleblowers within the FAA and within the company had raised alarms about the company’s operations and they fell on deaf ears, within the FAA and within Colgan. The PBS documentary Flying Cheap makes clear just how much the FAA knew about problems within Colgan before the tragic crash in February 2009 killed 50 people, including one person on the ground.
So how do you stop the next whistleblower? For one, when people are adamant that something wrong is going on, invest the time in having the claims or allegations checked out properly. Most employees–and I said most–don’t cry wolf. If they’re concerned that something is amiss, their concern is usually genuine even if they end up being incorrect. If it’s obvious that someone feels adamant that something unsafe or illegal is going on, they’re likely not to be satisfied forever with a bureaucratic brush-off. It’s better to take some time to investigate their claims now than have them become more and more determined that there’s something insidious going on or that there exists an attempt to cover up. If nothing else, the employee can’t claim that you ignored his or her concerns even if you ultimately don’t agree with them.
With that said, I do want to mention that while a lot of whistleblowers end up blowing the whistle because management ignored their concerns, there are some employees who use the threat of blowing the whistle to control their managers. This seems especially true in the FAA’s Flight Standards Division of late. Fear of whistleblowers should not paralyze an organization. Unfortunately, I have seen this paralysis all too often at the FAA, especially in Flight Standards when it comes to enforcement. If you’ve been involved in any enforcement cases or have had any regulatory differences with an inspector, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
If you disagree with an inspector’s interpretation on anything and want to elevate the matter to management, good luck. A fear has spread among Flight Standards managers that if they disagree with their inspectors on, for example, an enforcement sanction, the inspector will file a whistleblower complaint and the manager will find him or herself in hot water or, worse, out of a job. It’s not a secret. Managers will tell you they’re sympathetic to your situation, maybe they even agree with you, but their hands are tied.
If you haven’t experienced this yourselves, this paranoia (and it may be justified) all stems from the Southwest Airlines case several years back when higher-ups in the FAA, under pressure from whistleblower allegations before Congress, made several Flight Standards managers the scapegoats and removed them from their positions. Government employees have long memories when it comes to stuff like that.
In the end, stopping the next whistleblower and good management practices are all the same: listen to what employees (or others in a position to know) are saying, and follow up on their concerns. But don’t abdicate your management responsibilities if the individual’s concerns don’t pan out.