As the old saying goes, “snitches get stitches,” and for much of the history of the United States this was true in the case of whistle-blowers. We have a long tradition of people coming forward to report fraud and corruption and then having their lives ruined for it, even when the corruption is addressed. Whistle-blowing has long been a risky proposition, resulting in people being ostracized, fired, threatened, jailed, and possibly even killed.
In an effort to make it less risky, last November President Obama signed a law that enhances protections for whistle-blowers, allowing federal employees to challenge policy decisions without risking losing their jobs. It also requires agencies to appoint an ombudsman to guide and protect whistle-blowers who want to speak up. In addition, OSHA’s Whistle-blower Protection Program protects all kinds of workers from retaliation by their employers if they report wrongdoing.
If you are aware of fraud in your company, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about exposing it. Here’s what you need to know:
How to Report Fraud
If you know that your company is engaged in unlawful, unethical, or dangerous practices, it’s natural that you would want to expose those responsible. However, being a whistle-blower is a delicate and potentially dangerous proposition, even with the new laws in place. You must proceed very carefully and only with solid evidence of your claims. Here are the steps you should follow:
- Make a plan about where, when, and to whom you will report the wrongdoing. Be aware of local laws about whistle-blowing and, if possible, speak to an attorney about your concerns.
- Collect evidence, including a detailed record of wrongdoing. Do not keep this evidence at your workplace, and be aware that you have no privacy at work. Use software that allows you to surf anonymously and encrypt your emails and files to avoid detection at work.
- Have a lawyer help you craft your report of misconduct, and stick to the facts.
- Understand the ramifications of whistle-blowing. It is a highly stressful process and may affect your job or career. Even if you retain your job or successfully sue for reinstatement, you may find yourself labeled as a troublemaker which, although illegal, can affect chances of promotion as well as future prospects in your industry.
What Not to Do
Because whistle-blowing is such a delicate and potentially explosive action, knowing what to avoid is as important as knowing how to proceed. Here are a few things not to do:
- Don’t talk about it to others. Aside from your lawyer, discussing the fraud and/or your plans to expose it to anyone else is extremely risky. Even those who pledge their support may leave you high and dry when it all goes down.
- Don’t make assumptions. Theories that can’t be fully supported with evidence are likely to backfire.
- Don’t allow your emotions to become involved. Whistle-blowing is stressful and emotional, but it’s crucial to stay calm and focused purely on the facts.
- Never use work-provided electronic devices for whistle-blowing investigation unless you are certain you have adequate encryption in place.
How Are You Protected?
The new laws go a long way toward protecting whistle-blowers from retaliation by their employers. OSHA’s Whistle-blower Protection Program specifically prevents employers from firing or laying off, blacklisting, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, disciplining, denying benefits, failing to hire or rehire, intimidating, threatening, reassignment that prevents promotion, and/or reducing pay or hours in response to whistle-blowing. If your employer does take any of these kinds of retaliatory action, you must file a complaint with OSHA within 30 days of the adverse action.
Whistle-blowers can dramatically change things in corporations as well as government—even the face of history. These are a few of the most famous:
- W. Mark Felt, also known as “Deep Throat,” blew the cover off President Nixon’s part in the Watergate scandal. As a result of his leaks to the Washington Post, President Nixon resigned and two major White House advisers were imprisoned.
- Frank Serpico was a New York City cop who exposed the rampant corruption throughout the NYPD by taking his story to the New York Times when official channels failed. It is largely due to his actions that the NYPD cleaned up its act in the 1970s. Unfortunately, Serpico didn’t fare so well—when he was shot in the face in the line of duty, his fellow officers refused to help him. Although he survived, he was forced to retire and spent the remainder of his life living in the Swiss mountains.
- Karen Silkwood was a worker at the Kerr-McGee Nuclear Power Plant in Oklahoma, where she discovered appalling health and safety violations on behalf of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. Silkwood reported the violations to the Atomic Energy Commission, and shortly after discovered that she had been exposed to massive amounts of plutonium. She accused the company of giving her contaminated testing equipment and went to the New York Times with documentation, but never arrived at the meeting. She had been run off the road and killed and the documents had disappeared, but no one was ever charged.