Whistleblowers are in the spotlight once again

President Donald J. Trump made reforming and improving the Veterans Administration one of the core promises of his campaign in 2016, and one of his earliest moves upon becoming president was establishing the department’s first-ever Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. However, it appears things haven’t quite turned out as intended.

The VA’s inspector general has just released a scorching report finding that the office “investigated things it shouldn’t have, didn’t investigate things it was required to and bungled the investigations it did do,” reports Politico.

In particular, the I.G. report finds that rather than holding senior VA leaders accountable, the office used the powers granted it to conduct more than 8,000 investigations into lower-level employees for minor infractions such as arriving late. Meanwhile, only one top official at the VA has been fired as a result of the office’s investigations.

The report says the office’s first executive director, Peter O’Rourke, and his successor, Kirk Nicholas, engaged in “misdeeds and missteps that appeared unsupportive of whistleblowers while also failing to meet many of the other important objectives of the act” that established the office, reports the New York Times.

Whistleblowing employees are often key players in uncovering corruption and malfeasance within organizations. This week India-based tech giant Infosys disclosed it was under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and by Indian authorities after an anonymous group of workers calling itself “ethical employees” alleged that CEO Salil Parekh was taking unethical steps to increase the company’s revenue and profits. These steps allegedly included telling employees to “not fully recognize” costs such as visa expenses, the group said.

Infosys has pledged to cooperate with the investigations, reports Forbes.

Yet whistleblowers are often harassed and intimidated by the very organizations they work for. Last year a survey by the Ethics & Compliance Initiative of 5,000 U.S. employees found that the number of employees claiming they’ve faced retribution for reporting alleged misdeeds had doubled over a five-year span.

It’s ironic (if, perhaps, understandable) that some organizations want to stymie whistleblowers, because evidence clearly shows that their work helps rather than hurts companies. As Carol Patton reported earlier this year, a study by researchers at George Washington University and the University of Utah found that by encouraging workers to report wrongdoing, employers spend less time and money fighting legal battles than those that don’t. The study–Evidence on the Use and Efficacy of Internal Whistleblowing Systems–was based on records of employee complaints between 2004 and 2016 from 936 publicly traded U.S. employers. The authors concluded that profitable companies tend to use stronger internal-reporting systems and experience fewer bad outcomes.

“If you’re viewing whistleblowing through the lens of big failure, it’s going to be seen as something negative you want to avoid,” one of the researchers, Stephen Stubben, told Patton. “But the way to look at internal whistleblowing is that it’s valuable information that managers can use to prevent problems from getting big.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.