WhistleBlowers are Made, Not Born

by francine Hardaway on January 19, 2011

This morning the BBC is reporting that a whistleblower has handed over the records of several Swiss banks to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, revealing fraud and tax evasion.

A former Swiss banker has passed on data containing account details of 2,000 prominent people to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

The data–which is not yet available on the Wikileaks website–was held on two discs handed over by Rudolf Elmer at a press conference in London.

This reminded my friend Jeremiah Owyang of a site that originated in Silicon Valley right before the dot com bust. That was the famous F**kedCompany.com, and raised the question of whistleblowers in general, especially those who are dismissed, as bankerRudolf Elmer has been, as “disgruntled former employees.”

“Evidently disgruntled and frustrated about unfulfilled career aspirations, Mr. Elmer exhibited behaviour that was detrimental and unacceptable for the Bank, which led to termination of the employment relationship,” the bank said in a statement sent to BBC News.

I would like the propose a course in business school with a title HR101 “What Makes a Disgruntled Employee.” In that course, future business leaders might be taught, as I have learned on the job, that two primary things cause employees to become disenchanted with companies: layoffs, which are chronicled on F**ked Company, and ethical violations, which are chronicled on Wikileaks.

Although this may be difficult for managers to remember, employees do not join a company because they hate the product, disagree with what the company is doing, or disrespect the people who sign their paychecks. Rather, they approach a new job with amazing optimism and trust. One and all, they’re happy to have a job, happy to be hired, happy to have an occupation from which to derive self-worth. Many psychological studies reveal just how much self-worth we derive from work, and it’s written into most of our religious texts that hard work is a virtue.

So we don’t start out to be whistleblowers.

The principle cause of whistle blowing is lost trust. The two reasons employees lose trust in the company they work for are 1) poor management decisions that they can’t affect, and 2) ethical violations that they notice and cannot live with.

Most employees don’t want to appear at press conferences, on web sites, or in the movies. They don’t want to have the rest of their lives dominated by the fact that they snitched on an employer. It’s really difficult to create a disgruntled employee. Most of them just slink away when they are laid off or fired, feeling worthless.

If they don’t do that, you can be certain there is a good reason they are risking their professional lives.

Layoffs were the main trigger for reports to F**ked Company. Layoffs are usually seen by employees as a consequence of poor management decisions. We grew too quickly, management says. We overestimated the market, or the adoption curve, or even the degree of market acceptance.

The latest whistle blowing is being done by a former Swiss banker who wants to expose the money laundering and tax evasion he saw while working for a Swiss bank with an office in the Cayman Islands. According to this banker, prominent celebrities and political figures are hiding money from the U.S. and other governments.

In this mythical class, students would learn how to comply with the applicable tax codes, make responsible hiring decisions, and take the responsibility for the lives of others while growing a company.

Do you think anyone would sign up for this class? Or am I just dreaming.
(originally appeared in Fast Company)
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