Conde Nast: Life After Corporate Death
Life After Corporate Death
by JoAnn Greco Jul 10 2008
What you always suspected is in fact true: It doesn't pay to be a whistleblower. Just ask Sherron Watkins.
If Sherron Watkins, the famed Enron whistleblower, could do it all over again, she says she probably wouldn't have written that fateful memo to Ken Lay in August 2001 raising "suspicions of accounting improprieties." Nor would she have subsequently pushed for an internal investigation at the energy trading company, or later testified before Congress about her experiences there.
"I should have just left the company when I noticed things were wrong," says the 48-year-old Watkins today. "I'd be happily employed elsewhere."
Despite all the praise and publicity she received, including being named one of Time magazine's People of the Year in 2002 (along with fellow whistleblowers at Worldcom and the F.B.I.) and the recipient of countless awards, Watkins says her actions at Enron irreparably derailed her corporate career and even made it hard to get jobs in academia.
"I'd be in discussions with Rice or Wharton about becoming a visiting professor and there'd be an initial excitement; then down the road in the hiring process, someone would ask, 'Can't we get this skill set somewhere else?' " she recounts. "There was a fear factor, a sense that I couldn't be trusted."
Such stories are not uncommon among whistleblowers, even those who have become as celebrated as Watkins. Many have a hard time finding work, and most report suffering depression at some point, according to Dylan Blaylock, a spokesperson for the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit advocacy group for government and corporate accountability that's contacted by about 400 whistleblowers each year.
Whistleblowing is a "life-changing event that exacts a heavy toll on most, even the famous," says Blaylock. "Their peers don't want to associate with them and they become outcasts." Forced in many cases to leave their chosen fields, whistleblowers often flounder before crafting new careers.
Jeffrey Wigand, the cigarette company researcher whose exposure of industry practices famously helped bring down Big Tobacco in the 1990s, and who was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie The Insider, says he felt completely isolated after coming forward. By "refusing to be a bystander," he says he hoped to set an example. Instead, the 65-year-old now says, "I was left hanging in the breeze. I was radioactive. No one wanted anything to do with me."
He eventually found fulfillment teaching high school science and Japanese, but at a fraction of his former salary. These days he runs a nonprofit group called Smoke-Free Kids, which he largely funds himself from his consulting and appearance fees. The organization helps governments develop campaigns aimed at dissuading teens from lighting up. "I'm dedicated to derailing the industry's future revenue stream," Wigand says.
Wigand says he realizes most whistleblowers aren't as lucky as him in finding their way to gainful and fulfilling employment. "Sheer determination kept me from winding up in the trash can," Wigand observes. "For me, these years have been a path of reinvention."
Like Wigand, Peter Rost has found new ways to cause trouble for his old adversaries. As a $600,000-a-year vice president of marketing at pharma giant Pfizer in the early 2000s, Rost didn't shy away from alerting higher-ups to deceptive marketing involving a human growth hormone the company was selling. "They reacted very negatively and immediately started to isolate me," he recalls. "I knew what was coming." Feeling he had nothing to lose, he went public, was fired, and eventually brought a suit against the company.
"I knew, of course, that I'd never work in my industry again," Rost says. "But I thought it'd be easy to get a different kind of job in another area, maybe working for the government or a think tank." Instead, the 49-year-old learned that it "doesn't matter where you are, people keep their distance." Rost's employers took every opportunity to "bad-mouth" him, he says, adding that "only the newspapers applaud whistleblowers."
Rost eventually managed to take advantage of his fame by landing a column writing about drug-company marketing for Brandweek, and later at the Huffington Post. Rost, who trained as a physician in his native Sweden, eventually started a blog that acts as a vehicle for other pharmaceutical insiders with tales to tell to come forward. "There's more than one way to expose the crooks," says Rost. "It's not like I'm out to change the world anymore—I'm just trying to keep these guys in their place." But he's not exactly earning his Pfizer-level salary.
Unlike Rost, Enron's Watkins still struggles to redefine herself seven years after first coming forward. "I'd like to be busier," she concedes. "I'd like to be doing more training on corporate governance issues."
And she'd rather be known for something other than her role in bringing down Enron. "I get tired of rehashing my version of 'Stairway to Heaven' for the thousandth time," she says. And the sense that she can't be trusted prevails. "I can be hired as a consultant to give advice and such," she observes, "but I find that nothing much is shared with me."
Watkins cautions other potential whistleblowers about "glamorizing" the experience. "The book deal, the lecture circuit—that stuff happens once in a blue moon," Watkins says.
"I never counsel anyone to be a truth-teller," she adds. "It rarely works. If our system is so broken that we continue to rely on a few people, then something much larger is wrong."
[Please note that I didn't approve my quotes - they contain certain errors.]