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Join the lonely-heart whistleblowers’ club

Sunday January 10 2010

By RASNA WARAH

I HAVE RECENTLY BEEN THINKING of starting a Whistleblowers Club, sort of like Alcoholics Anonymous, complete with a 12-step recovery programme.

The idea came to me during a conversation I was having with a whistleblower who was describing to me what it feels like to report wrongdoing and not be taken seriously.

I had called this particular acquaintance because I had done a bit of whistleblowing myself and wondered whether the after-effects of my actions were common among us.

I wanted to know, for instance, whether the feelings of rage and betrayal that I felt were normal, and whether my bouts of insomnia would ever go away.

“It may take months to recover,” he confided. “You will find yourself alone. Friends and colleagues will abandon you. You will begin to question your relationships. Life will never be the same.”

Whistleblowers around the world have consistently reported feelings of isolation, betrayal and abandonment after they have reported incidences of corruption, malpractice or abuse of office.

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In 2002, when Cynthia Cooper told the audit committee of WorldCom’s board that she suspected irregularities in the company’s auditing practices, her colleagues stopped chatting with her and not a single senior executive thanked her for the revelation.

That same year, when Sherron Watkins of Enron reported “an elaborate accounting hoax” to the chairman, Kenneth Lay, she was quickly demoted. (Lay was eventually indicted and found guilty of fraud and conspiracy but died before he could serve his sentence.)

My own attempts to report suspected mismanagement of taxpayers’ money and unethical conduct at an international organisation were met swiftly with denial and intimidation.

Failure to bully me into submission was followed by stony silence. The message was clear: if you pursue this, we will shun and punish you – you will be ostracised.

A management consultant who I spoke to about my ordeal told me that this reaction is common in big bureaucracies where self-preservation – rather than productivity – is the driving force among managers. Managers in such organisations believe their job is to control, rather than inspire, their subordinates.

I thought then of John Githongo and the late David Munyakei. In their darkest hour, did they reprimand themselves for being so naïve? Did they regret their decision to blow the whistle?

When nothing changed after they had uncovered the misdeeds, and the forces of corruption colluded in a massive cover-up, did they wish they had been smarter and taken the easier option of looking the other way?

IRONICALLY, WHISTLEBLOWERS ARE very often those who are most committed, not only to the work that they do, but to the organisations that they serve.

Named Persons of the Year by Time magazine in 2002 (along with FBI agent Coleen Rowley who reported the bureau’s failure to follow up on key terrorist suspects), Cooper and Watkins were described by the magazine as “the truest of the true believers, ever faithful to the idea that where they worked was a place that served the wider world in some important way.”

Their act of blowing the whistle was a last-ditch attempt to save their organisations from ruin. Time noted: “Sometimes it’s the keepers of the flame who feel most compelled to set their imperfect temple to the torch.”

“At times I felt I was in a very dark place,” Cooper told Time. The only thing that kept her sane, she said, was reading passages from the Bible: Her fellow whistleblower Watkins eventually left her job to champion reforms in corporate governance structures. Seven years later, the world wishes there were more people like her in the corporate world.

The recent global financial crisis has shown that unethical conduct can have dire consequences and affect millions of lives. The recognition that corruption can seriously destroy economies led another woman – Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – to pass a law last month that protects and compensates whistleblowers who come forward with information on corrupt practices.

Corruption destroys, not just economies, but organisations and individuals. Productivity declines, cynicism pervades all facets of work, and sycophancy and mediocrity become the norm.

Such organisations soon become irrelevant or die prematurely. Conscientious employees are pushed to the wall until they have no choice but to walk away, by resigning or asking for a transfer. (Sometimes walking away – rather than fighting back – is the only way to salvage one’s dignity.)

When I walked away from my job, I felt oddly alive, despite the bouts of insomnia. Would I do it again? I am not so sure. But like Watkins, I keep thinking of this quote by the late Martin Luther King Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

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