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When I was the whistleblower

What does it feel like to file a complaint that something’s just not right and watch the process unfold?

What’s happening right now in DC is unprecedented, and the stakes and risks for the person who filed the whistleblower complaint are very high. The person who reported on Trump’s activities in the call with Ukraine took advantage of a process specifically designed to protect the identity of people who want to report wrongdoing in government, and is supposed to ensure that such complaints, if valid, get passed on to congressional oversight committees.

My experience was at a level nothing like this. But it did hold career risks for me. I’ve never told anyone about it, and only one other person actually knows I did this.

I was a rank-and-file staffer working for a medium-sized company that had very high ethical standards. The company had recently shared with all employees that there was a confidential tip-line for employees who wanted to report something that was wrong or unethical. The tips were anonymous and could be submitted by email or voice message and the recipient of the tips, the corporate counsel (the company’s top lawyer) was bound to follow up on them.

At the time this message came out, I’d noticed something that didn’t seem right. Many of us received quarterly bonus compensation based on achieving various goal metrics. This was a significant amount of money, so you’d often be concerned if you were having a bad quarter.

I had been surprised to learn that some members of our sales team were persuading other employees to help them out with clients by offering a sort of virtual currency that could help you reach your goals. The currency was a side-effect of a loophole in the accounting system and was unrelated to the clients being helped. This created a sort of shadow economy where salespeople could reward favors by helping other folks reach their bonus goals.

Now I want to be clear: this had no influence whatsoever on numbers that were reported to investors, so there was absolutely no financial fraud. More than 99% of the bonus scorekeeping related to totally legitimate activity we did for clients. And the salespeople weren’t necessarily behaving unethically, they were just trying to get help with their clients. But I felt the loophole was an abuse of the accounting system that distorted the way we were supposed to work and shouldn’t continue.

I actually met privately with the corporate counsel, explained what was happening, and asked them to look into it. Although I knew that people might be angry at me for doing this, I eschewed the anonymity offered because I trusted the counsel to do the right thing and not drag me into it. The counsel said they would take it from there and needed no additional help from me.

For about six months, nothing happened. I had almost forgotten about my complaint, but apparently there was an internal discovery process. After that, the company closed the loophole in the accounting system and issued a message to employees described what had been happening and that it would no longer be happening. The statement also clarified for everyone that this change, and the previous behavior, had no effect on any numbers reported to investors.

What happened next surprised me

I had a little feeling of satisfaction that I’d helped fix something wrong with how the company worked. Since no one but the counsel knew I’d started the process, there was no one to even tell about it. I was pleased that the company’s management did, indeed, behave ethically as I’d hoped they did. I assumed that would be the end of it.

The counsel never revealed my identity, and to this day, I believe the counsel is the only person who knows I filed the complaint.

But the unexpected positive from this incident was that I developed a positive relationships with the chief counsel. I met with them from time to time to discuss challenges and opportunities, and I benefited greatly from those conversations. The counsel had determined that I was an honorable person, and I learned that they were, too. This relationship proved quite helpful to me throughout my time at the company.

If you are in a similar position — in government, in a non-profit organization, or in a company — I hope that you, too, can trust the processes that will allow the truth to come out about things that just aren’t right.

So much bad behavior and bad policy never gets fixed. “Report it to HR” is often a dead-end. This is how we end up with culturally compromised companies like Uber and Miramax where bad behavior is rampant and anyone who reports it is potentially subject to blowback.

A whistleblower process can’t fix a corrupt culture. But it can help reinforce a positive culture where flawed things inevitably happen from time to time.

The whistleblower in the White House is about to face incredible repercussions; Trump just implied that they ought to be executed. Talk like that is a pretty good way to reduce the chances that the next person will ever have the courage to file a complaint when things are very wrong.

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