2011 was one of the most difficult years of my career. I was on assignment, living and working in Tokyo. After March 11, I put aside my job for a while in order to serve as a crisis manager after the Fukushima triple disaster, supporting all the company employees and their families who were affected by the earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear meltdown. But that’s another story.
The week before that natural and man-made disaster, I had filed a complaint with our internal whistleblower program, and that started me down a road of having every bit of my integrity, qualifications, and intentions examined and questioned. 2011 was a year of extremes.
My job in Asia involved working with customers to solve environmental, health, and safety problems as part of our financing operation. I got a chance to work with every industry you can imagine, ensuring protection of employees, community, and environment as a condition of getting a loan, lease, or investment.
One day, I got a request from our real estate office, asking me to approve health and safety for a bunch of office leases for employees in India…it wasn’t part of my job, but I sat down to take a look. And I discovered that many of our employees in call centers and offices across Asia were working in buildings that weren’t safe. The company leased low cost real estate for its back office operations, but it turned out that these buildings often didn’t have operating fire alarms or their emergency exit doors were routinely locked or the buildings were not seismically sound. I started to ask questions. I put together a list of all our offices in the region and collected information about each location and compiled all the applicable health and safety regulations. And I tried to get the company to fix these problems for our employees. And for six long months I got exactly nowhere. And I worried every day that an accident or fire or earthquake would kill or injure our employees.
So I filed a complaint through our internal ombuds program. Turns out the complaint went directly to the executive who had been resisting me for six months. So I had to send it again to our main office in Connecticut. I compiled every bit of documentation, all my emails and correspondence and all the regulations into a comprehensive package. And almost immediately I came under a cloud of suspicion. Turns out that my employer, like a lot of companies, treats whistleblowers like criminals until and unless they can prove their complaint to be valid. I went through an entire year of being grilled by company lawyers about my complaint and having to put on a defense worthy of a criminal trial. I was lucky that my job involved laws and regulations, and I was able to demonstrate just how the company was not in compliance in many Asian countries.
At the end of that year, one morning I got a call from the lawyer in Connecticut, who briefly informed me that the investigation had been completed, every one of my findings had been confirmed, and the company was hiring a team to handle employee health and safety at offices across Asia. And that was it, my whistleblower experience was over with one phone call. I never heard another word about it.
But my confidence during that year in the company’s program was shattered. This is a common experience for whistleblowers, who most frequently start the process with a spirit of improving their organizations but end it feeling disillusioned. But in the end, I would do it again if I had to. Sometimes we have to be willing to make organizations uncomfortable in order to make positive change.
This post is sponsored by Marty Walters for Congress, FEC ID C00639732
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