Monday, September 19, 2011

Beware of Whistleblowers!

Not only should you plan for fires, explosions, natural disasters and workplace violence, but you MUST anticipate and be prepared to manage a WHISTLEBLOWER crisis.

The U.S. Government has reported a steady increase in whistleblower cases since 2005, and one of the nation's largest labor law practices has had an increase of 25-percent in whistleblower and retaliation complaints from 2009 to the present. They recently created a stand-alone specialty Whistleblowing and Retaliation Practice.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has seen an increase of 2011 whistleblower cases already totalling 2,339 as of last week, and that compares to 2,319 for all of last year and 2,010 for all of 2009.

So, you need a section in your crisis communication plan for a whistleblower sparked crisis and a response for a whistleblower who isn't accurate.

ICM had a relatively small company client with less than 200 employees. They had fired an employee for cause.  That employee set out to "get even" by making whistleblower charges with a number of federal agencies and offices.  The employee finally got a government lawyer to listen.  It was likely the lawyer had political aspirations and saw an opportunity to use this case.

The company was well run, had a great reputation, and a number of government contracts.  The only two people in the world who wanted to hurt the company was the fired worker and one government lawyer.

The company had ignored or missed a technical record keeping step and the whistleblower "got 'em" on that.  The company paid a million dollar fine and the whistleblower got a couple of hundred-thousand dollars of the penalty.

By comparison, Bank of America was just ordered to pay a whistleblower $930,000 in interest and back wages and reinstate the employee. OSHA concluded, "This employee showed great courage reporting potential fraud and standing up for the rights of other employees to do the same."  BoA was found to have used illegal retaliatory tactics against the whistleblower.

Several legal experts agree the increase in whistleblowing is a good thing, unless you are a company that is cutting corners, operating illegally or otherwise not operating in the public interest.

We recommend two things:  1.  Don't do that!  Doing the right thing is almost always the right thing to do. And, 2. Maintain a crisis communication plan, just in case you make a mistake and someone blows the whistle on your organization.

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