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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.]


Anonymous Swiss no more said...

One of the main reason for this sorry state that WBers find themselves in must be the way we as people better yet the whole population are basucally dishonest. We all have the potential to be crooks but most people would not do it for some reason, whatever it is. But what they do is look other way, don't want to report, rock the boat. They may not agree with what say the top management is doing (using illegal stuff to advance their personal and/or company goals etc.) but would not say anything about it let alone WB. And when someone does it, they are treated as described here or worse. They become the new lepers of our societies. No job, no friends no nothing. Everyone is avoiding them. I worked for a bigpharma co that had it in their codes of conduct the WBing thing. Telling employees it was their duty and responsibility to come forward and WB if they knew things about the misconduct of any kind. Assured of protection etc. etc. Once someone did it. Their days with the Co were over. The offending thing would be covered up and the WBer would be out sooner or later. That was the "protection" he got. It seems the encouragement for WBing was their way to draw the WBer out, see what he knows, get the info and evidence and then cann them. That is why if you work for the Co that has this don't trust them and if you do decide to WB as Peter and others did, do it externally. Internally you are only making it easy for them to get you. The best case scenario for the WBer is when he/she does not need to work anymore or the Wbing would make them so rich that they are not dependent on any Co or business.
Perhaps we should have the WBer protection program like the one they give witnesses when they WB on real mafia. Lot of similarityes here anyway. Remeber someone calls the bigpahrma the BigPharmafia. We need protection from them for sure.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am open to any input anyone can give that can distinguish big pharma in America from any state-sanctioned cartel in Columbia or any other nation in the last 3 decades

Anonymous Anonymous said...

much of what is written in the article rings true -- though i long knew that my old career would be over, once i chose the path of sarbanes-oxley whistle-blower.

the key is knowing, in advance, that nothing will ever be the same.

and knowing you won't mind looking into the eyes of the guy in the mirror, as you shave in the morning, ever again.

that, frankly, was worth it all -- even if i never make another penny in my life. anywhere. to be able to tell my kids that i am genuinely proud of ALL that i've done, at work. i've done my part to make it right, whether "the right thing" actually ever happens, or not -- i will now leave this earth knowing that i was (at least) one that wouldn't just roll-over, and play ball. not when crimes are underway.

it is still traumatic, all these years later, just the same.

good topic!

Anonymous swiss no more said...

Case of anon 2 along with the brave lady of Enron show that we should have "WB protection" program. Why should not these two brave, socialy responsible people live and work under another identity? They need protection not from the BiPharmafia but from the rest of us. How sad? They came forward to do it for us and then we turn around and treat them like enemy while the real enemy goes on with their business in most cases. They change their ways but not theor crooked ways. They invent new methods just as illegal as the ones they got caught for, but different and maybe much harder to detect and prove. I witnessed this with my own Co after the major WBing. The protagonists were spared, some promoted (one got canned as a scapegoat) and the whole thing covered up. Soon they were at it again with the new stuff. Why? They are so addicted to using illegal methods that they can't stop for the return is so incredible compared to using only legal business practices. When caught agai, they pay the fine that is another cost of doing biz for them. Very neet but damn scary, isn't it?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes I worked for Pfizer and reported a massive possible fraud. Job vanished over the next two months and Pfizer Internal audit sanitised any and every problem. Officially NO PROBLEM.
SEC would be interested...forget it.
KPMG are frightened for their contract and sign everything off as "good".
PFIZER stinks like the smell of a old boot and has over 200 possible frauds at the moment.
Do they want anyone to report possible losses...Yes...Reward basically F... O.. as quickly as they can get rid of you.

I wonder whether KPMG are as involved and could also be at the end of their existence if they carry on this way with Pfizer.

Remember one thing it does not matter whether it is right it matters that it it is the cheapest way. The Pfizer moto.

"within the nnext two years ALL production of drugs for Pfizer will be moved to Inida. Quality is no problem because basically they could not give a shit"

Sorry I have to be anonymous....

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pfizer is not the only one, we know that. Maybe one of the worse that GOT caught. There is one other that is as bad if not worse, but never got caught big time. It is the teflon Novartis. How long are they going to thumb their noses at everyone and not just in USA but everywhere? I suspect that the "Swiss no more" is about this one. Can't be Roche they are perhaps one of the few that are still ethical due to the Roche family control.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that KPMG will experience their downfall with Pfizer the way that Arthur Anderson did with Enron and then the whole country will bemoan poor KPMG.

I want to pay honor to the Sarbanes Oxley whistleblower above and also to ask him/her a question . . . I am interested to know what he/she experienced with regard to the protections and efficacy of the whistleblower protections in the Act.

I know that the protections under that act are much less extensive (as well as a shorter time to file the complaint-- that doesn't mirror anything under the False Claims Act, any criminal statute, or even any 180 day time limit within EEOC guidelines) than any other areas of the law.

From a whistleblower's perspective, are the whistleblower provisions in Sarbanes-Oxley helpful at all?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Novartis can come down if the WBer remains strong. Many know the truth and will support the cause if they keep going. Sorry I can"t leave my name, but know we are praying for you.

Blogger Ethics Whistler said...

Interesting post. I was just reading an article in The Washington Post about a lawsuit which is questioning the constitutionality of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which requires publicly traded organizations to establish a process to manage whistleblower complaints. According to the Post, it seems likely that the Public company Accounting Oversight Board, who created the act, will lose their case. This could have an interesting affect on federal whistleblowing regulations and technologies, so it should be an interesting story to keep your eye on.

Anonymous Kerstin/Motvallsbloggen said...

Very sad to hear that the Enron Wber has lost that much because of her brave actions. I have somtimes wondered what happened to her after the Enron scandal.

The wider implications of all this is a night mare. What kind of societies are our so called democracies in the Western World: "Gangsterocracies"?

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Blogger Sherron Watkins said...

Hi Peter, I had very serious issues with errors in the Conde Nast article. The mistakes change the statements to the point of being liable. The reporter and her editor recognized the omissions/mistakes as such and immediately revised their publication. I would appreciate it if you would do the same. The corrected article/interview can be found at

Specifically, I said I should have left the company in 1996 when I first saw improprieties. If I would have left in 1996, I would then be happily employed elsewhere and would never have met with Ken Lay, testified, etc. But that is an “It’s a Wonderful Life” what-if. I have never said that ‘if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have met with Ken Lay, testified, etc. ‘
This false statement was corrected by Conde Nast, it remains in your blog.

To leave out the date I should have left (1996) and to basically state I should have left in 2001 is very important to the meaning of the statement. Then to construe I would have never met with Ken Lay is giving a false impression.

Secondly, the distancing by a university was Rice, but never Wharton; I have never had but the warmest reception from Wharton leaders.

Third, I always counsel people to be truth tellers; just not truth-to-power tellers. There is a big difference.

You have some sort of qualifier on your blog such as "Please note I didn't approve my quotes - they contain certain errors," this qualifier does not at all suffice for the incorrect information in your blog.
I can be reached at or Thanks for taking the time to make the necessary changes. Best regards, Sherron


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