February 24, 2009

Blowing the Whistle

Sorry that I have been away for so long, it isn’t for the lack of desire – too many responsibilities with the year-end, shareholder meeting and 2009 growth demands.

This weekend I began to prepare for my participation in the “Great Debate” sponsored by the Oregon Independent College Foundation (OICF). It seemed to be the appropriate Blog subject and I was incredibly lucid in my thinking, but following a system crash I had to redo this blog post; and it now comes with an epiphany – if Microsoft made cars we would walk to work three or four times a week.

As I now sit here on Monday night, after a very long day of work and a session with my personal trainer who seems to just live to kick my ass I am far less lyrical.

In an earlier post I mentioned my involvement with the University of Arizona and the Eller Ethics Bowl. I find my time with these very bright and inspired students to invigorate my thinking and challenge me to be a better mentor.

The OICF Ethics Bowl is an academic competition that stresses the importance of ethics in the workplace, combined with leadership, decision making, and interpersonal relations. So aside from being a judge on Saturday, this Friday I will be on stage with 7 other CEO's in Oregon, judged by a student panel from the OICF's member schools debating a current ethical dilemma.
The topic is all too real. A senior bank executive, who is not part of the lending operations, discusses the impending risk they see based on the bank’s sub-prime policy with the bank’s CEO. The CEO tells the executive they have always been a team player, but have also always been too risk adverse. The CEO explains that the bank had hedged against the sub-prime risk and that while they appreciate this concern; a more immediate concern is the less than stellar growth numbers the executive’s division is reporting. The executive goes home and tells their spouse that they are conflicted at work. The spouse’s response is “how do we pay our bills and keep our kids in private school if you lose your job?”

The question for the panel is basically “what’s a girl to do…” This scenario can be played a dozen different ways. A single mom sees her boss doing something wrong, but how do you pay the rent if you are retaliated against. This is a real problem and while I can discuss the how and why surrounding the importance of having the right culture to report misconduct it doesn’t answer the question.

In this case, a person raised their hand, expressed an opinion and was told there is no risk and you better get your personal house in order if you keep pushing this agenda.
However, I can also turn the tables. People at Peanut Corporation of America must have seen and felt the same way. They didn’t want to lose their jobs, but by the last week in January, the number of tainted peanut butter salmonella cases had reached 600, at least nine people are dead and PCA is bankrupt.

So I ask you – how could this executive be more effective in exposing this risk? Or, should they remain silent?


5 Responses to "Blowing the Whistle"

Emmie {orange + barrel} said... February 25, 2009 at 12:44 PM

I don't think there is an easy answer to this question. In general people are scared of losing their homes right now, scared that if they leave their job there won't be another one around the corner. I think many of my 20-somethings friends are just trying to keep their noses clean, heads down and keep their job. If you look back at the history of this country in times of fear, fear seems to trump any sense of morality or advocating for the common good. I think it is evident around WWI, WWII, post 9-11, sub-prime crisis. The result of choosing fear has resulted in horrible decisions and in many situations, the darkest times of the country. I know I am speaking in huge generalizations, but we as a people, or as a country need to be less myopic and see the aggregate effect of all of our decisions, both morally and professionally. As demonstrated by the Peanut company and countless companies throughout the globe, being short sighted doesn't serve their bottom line.

Say that you are a worker at the peanut company, and you get fired, but the problem gets solved, nine people get to live and the wrongful termination claims are just piling up in my head. You could actually come out fiscally ahead. I say that with a bit of jest.

There are no easy answers. Every family has to find the point where money v. morality meet and do what works for them. I don't think anyone could fault someone for making a poor decision in light of keeping food on the table.

Anonymous said... February 25, 2009 at 6:24 PM

Regrettably recent history, both in the US and Europe, shows that the best advice is 'Never be a Whistle Blower', if you wish to protect your own position. I guess that presents us with the conundrum that 'you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't!'. Reprehensible, but it seems in the examples David quotes the end result would likely be the same i.e., that a job loss, albeit for different reasons may result. I like to think that I, and others, would not do other than report or act on any significant matter which materially infringed personal or business ethics and practices; legal conduct; human rights or dignities. The difficulty always is assessing what may be 'significant', or 'material' and whether or not it was deliberate or accidental. Personal judgement needed except in blatant circumstances. Then it is easy. In my view, it does come down to a matter of size or importance. Then a decision is easy - whatever the consequences. Barry Buttifant

David Childers said... February 26, 2009 at 1:13 PM

Barry, thanks for the feedback. Your final comment rings so true. If the measured outcome is too great, the moral obligation to do what is right trumps everything else.

Anonymous said... March 20, 2009 at 9:22 PM

Cut and dry ethical delimas are easy. It's the gray issues that cause most executives problems. It's those issues that are deemed acceptable commerical risk, that do not violate the law, that decrease employee trust of management. Ethics and Integrity are subjective, just like retaliation. They are both hard to prove and exist in most corporate cultures. Ethics and trust go hand in hand.

Anonymous said... January 13, 2010 at 6:44 PM

I am just now going through the results of " Blowing the Whistle". It has been a very hard and stressful time for me but I felt that I had to bring the problem to the attention of the " The Higher Ups". Now I can say that I would think real hard before doing this again. We are just at the going to court point since the company that retaliated against me will not settle out of court. They do not think they did anything wrong. Well I guess we will see. Just remember big corporations have alot of power and to report a wrong and following through with to the top is not easy. I wish the "Whistle Blowers Act" worked better for me. Count on a long time of very stressful times and being called a lier and such. Good luck to anyone who chooses to follow my path.

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About Me

David Childers
of EthicsPoint

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Favorite Quotes:

Ronald Reagan
There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.

John Quincy Adams
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.

Ray Kroc
The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.

John Maxwell
The first step to leadership is servanthood.