It’s been two weeks since I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at the Ethics & Compliance Initiative’s Fall Best Practice Forum, Understanding and Preventing Retaliation in E&C, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the conference. What a prescient topic for the ECI to explore, given the high-profile role a whistleblower is playing in Washington, D.C. at the moment — and how the treatment of that whistleblower is likely to be perceived within our own organizations.
I haven’t seen a more engaged conference audience in quite some time, as we learned about the anti-retaliation efforts at myriad organizations, including KPMG, Lockheed Martin, Allstate, BP, and the Department of Defense, to name just a few. The conference also featured two speakers from the academic field who talked about power dynamics and the psychology of retaliation — fascinating stuff. And, last but certainly not least, Tyler Schultz took questions about his role as a Theranos whistleblower and how his brave actions impacted his family and Tyler’s relationship with his grandfather, former Cabinet member and former Theranos Director, George Schultz.
During my first presentation, I interviewed Dana Gold, Senior Counsel and Director of Education at the Government Accountability Project. Dana not only works to foster awareness of the essential role whistleblowers play in promoting government and corporate accountability, she also represents whistleblowers, including three currently from the Department of Homeland Security. Dana and I talked about how reporting an issue or potential issue typically means “speaking truth to power,“ which is very risky. (Let’s be honest: If it weren’t risky, #metoo would have happened a LOOOONG time ago.) We tackled the question of why certain people decide to take that risk and challenged folks to recalibrate their collective view of whistleblowers by recognizing their bravery. (On a separate note, contrary to how it appears in this terrible photo of me, it was an absolute delight to be on stage with someone who talks just as fast as I do!)
The current debate about President Trump’s intentions in Ukraine, of course, was a backdrop to our discussion — in particular, the insistence of many people in both politics and the media that the whistleblower is a traitor who should be identified. Regardless of our individual political leanings, this type of narrative is both dangerous and unwarranted, especially in a democratic system like ours in the United States, the foundation of which is checks and balances in the name of accountability. To that end, last month, eight former intelligence community inspectors general (IGs) signed an open letter to Congress, urging the Senate and the House “to protect the whistleblower from retaliation and unwarranted attacks.”
In their letter, those eight men stressed the nonpartisan nature of their concerns. Those of us in the ethics and compliance profession — Republicans and Democrats alike — should also be profoundly concerned about the message that is being sent when senior leaders and media outlets castigate an American citizen for doing what’s right: raising a concern in good faith in the face of serious potential reprisal. Every day, we ask our employees to do the very same. How can we expect them to take a similar risk, let alone feel safe doing so, in light of the current situation in Washington?
I’d like to urge one or more of the high-profile compliance trade groups (SCCE, ECI, or a similar organization) to take up the charge on behalf of our industry. Please work with chief ethics and compliance officers from the private sector on a letter similar to that from the former IGs. And, chief ethics and compliance officers, wouldn’t it make sense to sign just such a letter, as a gesture of your commitment to whistleblower protections? The time to change the narrative is now.