Sometimes problems on the job present more than mere inconveniences that can just be overlooked. With whatever position or title we may hold, situations sometimes occur where we must confront the dilemma of addressing unethical or perhaps even illegal workplace activity. Can I overlook the wrongdoing? Will I be held responsible if I do overlook it? What, if any, are my obligations? These are thoughts that may run through one’s mind.
Sometimes the conduct is too hard to overlook. What if it causes economic or physical injury to others or involves cheating customers, shareholders, or the government? For example an employee knows that a customer, is being overbilled, or that the services that the customer paid for were not fully provided.
At first glance we may dismiss suspicious activity because we want to believe that our employer is ethical and would not break the law. As the wrongful conduct persists, we may re-visit our concerns and conduct internet research or talk to co-workers, family and friends.
Unable to reconcile the employer’s behavior, we ultimately face the dilemma of confronting the issue. If I confront the employer, will I be retaliated against? Should I go directly to the government? Do I need a lawyer? If the company has an internal compliance program, will it really work? Many of these questions can be better understood, by understanding what a “whistleblower” is.
According to the Government Accountability Project (GAP) website, every year, thousands of Americans witness wrongdoing on the job. These workers discover waste, fraud, abuse or malfeasance that could jeopardize the lives of others, or well-being of the public. They may see food processing plants sending contaminated and dangerous meat to consumers, nuclear facilities in gross violations of safety protocols, a chemical company dump hazardous waste into rivers unlawfully, or accounting fraud that deceives thousands of stockholders.
Most employees remain silent, typically out of fear of losing their positions. Others choose to risk their professional (and personal) well-being and come forward with the truth. They seek to make a difference by “blowing the whistle” on unethical conduct in the workplace.
The GAP composite definition of whistleblower taken from combined state, federal and international cases is: An employee who discloses information that s/he reasonably believes is evidence of illegality, gross waste or fraud, mismanagement, abuse of power, general wrongdoing, or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety. Typically, whistleblowers speak out to parties that can influence and rectify the situation. These parties include the media, organizational managers, hotlines, or Congressional members/staff, to name a few.
Often, the whistleblower does so even though the wrongdoing that s/he witnesses is considered the norm or accepted behavior for that particular environment. Because the wrongdoing is — unfortunately—considered accepted behavior, the decision to blow the whistle is a difficult one. Those in the whistleblower’s immediate environment often try to convince the whistleblower that what s/he believes is unethical, or indeed illegal, is acceptable and legal. Whistleblowers question themselves and seek information to either validate their own conclusions or to question their conclusions.
The question of whether to report company misconduct internally is both personal and strategic. Those who have made the decision that the wrongdoing needs to be reported are probably ready to consult counsel. Legal counsel can be very helpful in providing guidance on how to best address wrongful conduct in the workplace in terms of whether to go to internal compliance or a regulatory body.
While being a whistleblower is sometimes not easy, there are many people who have gone through the experience and resources do exist to guide the experience to a successful result.