Monday, November 13, 2006

Whistleblowers: Crazy people?

Most people wonder how anyone can become a whistleblower—ever. After all, most stories of whistleblowers don’t end well. And that’s the reason most people keep quiet.

It’s called self preservation.

So who are these people who go against the crowd?

In my book “The Whistleblower” I start out with the following description:

A study of 233 whistleblowers by Donald Soeken, St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC found that the average whistleblower was a family man in his forties with a strong conscience and high moral values. After blowing the whistle on fraud, 90 percent of the whistleblowers were fired or demoted, 27 percent faced lawsuits, 26 percent had to seek psychiatric or physical care, 25 percent suffered alcohol abuse, 17 percent lost their homes, 15 percent got divorced, 10 percent attempted suicide, and 8 percent were bankrupted. But in spite of all this, only 16 percent said that they wouldn’t blow the whistle again.

One thing I’ve learned—which didn’t exactly come as a surprise—is that most organizations react the same way to whistleblowers. The basic response is “kill the messenger.” And if he goes public, he is all but guaranteed to lose his standing in the group.

So when I blew the whistle the third time around, at the Huffington Post, it didn’t surprise me that they immediately locked me out and stopped me from writing further articles for them. Of course, one reason I criticized the HuffPo publicly was because, based on my experience, I didn’t think doing so quietly would help and I also wanted to test this hypothesis. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that they were forced to implement my recommendations (prohibit employees from anonymously posting on blogs and remove “reader’s favorite comments” which I had shown could be abused).

Whistleblowers are often right, however, most organizations feel it is more important not to be embarrassed than to correct what is wrong. So the whistleblower is seen as a bigger threat than the problem they bring up. When Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins went to the CEO to save the company, she didn’t get a pat on the shoulder. Instead, Ken Lay, the CEO, tried to fire her. This is a typical reaction. Of course, part of the problem is that corruption often starts at the top, so when employees try to correct things they discover that they step on some mighty toes.

So how can someone be crazy enough to blow the whistle?

After all, I wouldn’t recommend for anyone to do what I’ve done. I guess whistleblowing should have the same disclaimer they use in car commercials: Closed course, professional driver, do not try on your own.

But I always believed, that just like a professional driver, I’d be able to pull this stunt off. I’ve never encountered anything I couldn’t resolve in the end. We’ll see if that’s true this time around as well.

This still begs the question, however . . . how can anyone be crazy enough to be a whistleblower?

Clearly, there are lots of good, conscientious people in every industry; yet, most of them don’t end up in such an exposed situation.

The reason for that is, I think, that when you work in lower or middle management, you don’t see the big picture and you don’t see all the things that are going on. It’s not your job to deal with those problems. And, at least in my experience, once you get to a more senior management level, that’s when suddenly all hell breaks lose. And this is also the reason management is so careful about whom they promote to this level. Everyone knows this isn’t just about the best guy for the job—it is about trust. Management needs to trust the senior employee to do the “right thing,” and that may be defined very differently in different companies. Usually it means quietly solving things, or looking the other way, or to be able to take a hint when to back off.

But some people don’t take that hint. Are they born troublemakers, born whistleblowers?

I don’t think so. I think whistleblowers are made, not born. They simply saw enough and said “enough is enough.” It’s basically a matter of fairness. Some had no choice. “Join the conspiracy, act or quit.” Those are the options. Not an easy choice. And some choose to act. When the company doesn’t like their action they are branded “whistleblowers.”

Animal experiments support this contention.

You see, animals appear to have an inherent sense of fairness and justice, just like humans. In experiments with Capuchins, they proved they knew unfairness when they encountered this.

Capuchins prefer grapes to cucumbers, and when a scientist in a test gave a grape to one capuchin and a cucumber to another, the latter threw it onto the ground and stalked away rather than give in to this injustice. In another experiment, these animals learned to trade a plastic pipe for food. If they saw another capuchin make a trade for a delicious grape, but were offered a cucumber in exchange for their own plastic pipe, they were much more likely to refuse to hand it over in return for the stupid vegetable. Clearly, they felt it was better to go hungry than to give in to this unfairness. Many similar experiments have been performed, showing that animals rather have nothing than something, if another animal is treated better.

And humans may operate the same way. It may be better to become a whistleblower and stop an injustice, even though the cost is much higher than the gain, simply based on this sense of unfairness.

Many studies in humans have confirmed that this is how we operate. In one experiment, one person is offered $100 and then tells his teammate that he will only get $25 out of that $100, or they’ll both get nothing, and the teammate usually refuses, and so they both get nothing.

Whistleblowing; it’s about fairness. Doing the right thing; correct an injustice.

It’s not something people do lightly, because the penalties in our society are so high—no job, no money, no future, etc.

But deep down it is probably hardwired into our brains.

Just like the response is hardwired. We need cooperation to survive. Whistleblowing is perceived as a threat to the group: Kill the wolf that doesn’t acquiesce.

We are all wolfs in a Wolfpack.

Which pack do you want to belong to?


Anonymous said...

Hold your horses Doc Peter.Things are not that bad for whistleblowers. Why? Well some of the big pharma in fact enourage reporting of misdeads, in the interest of the corporation itself and everyone in the corporate "family"
Here is partial excerpt from the regulations governing such reporting at one of the really, really big ones, not Pfizer of course:
"There are occasions when our internal standards are violated, when this is a case our business and our reputation may suffer. The responsibility to prevent this lies with every associate. It is everyones obligation to report actual or suspected cases of misconduct to the office our corporate center.
XXXXXXX has a strict policy of non-retaliation against associate who reports under this rule. This right to non-retaliation is guaranted under the Code ...... and violation of this will be not tolerated. Emplyees who make reports of this kind are often refered to as "whistleblowers" and their identity will be fully protected...."
Yes Doc this is true and it works well in this big pharma. And yes doc there IS Santa Claus and he lives in Sweden, as you well know and can testify.

Anonymous said...

Don't be too sure, anonymous! Those regulations you're referring to read almost identical to Pfizer's-- yes even at the time that they were so brutally retaliating against Dr. Rost, and several others, some of whom went away quietly with severance packages or settlements and very binding non-disclosure agreements because, after initially being naive enough to BELIEVE those written regulations presented to all employees and investors as the company's binding policy toward reporting and whistleblowers, they were instead brutally retaliated against in the most heinous of ways that mirror everything Dr. Rost has written about and worse, and always shrouded in secrecy, these whistleblowing employees were convinced by iron-fisted Pfizer that not even the federal government could protect them against all of Pfizer Legal, and to some extent, sadly, Pfizer was right.

When a written policy tells you that it is every employee's obligation to report, while that is actually true under the law and abides by the company's requirement under recent federal law to say that and pay lipservice to it (so that it can at least give the appearance of being in full compliance with the law when the feds review those booklets and guidelines that you are receiving to see if your company is in compliance with the law), it still amounts to nothing more than lipservice while really being "corporate speak" for baiting the trap to lull the would-be whistleblowers out into the open so that we can identify and destroy them before we move forward with our next and even more illegal scheme.

(In that context having those printed policies is a win/win for your company-- look good to the feds while weeding out the "narc"s so we can move forward with a more aggressive and fraudulent scheme.)

It's strictly a method of risk management, not a genuine policy likely to be followed. Tread softly on that thin ice your skating, my friend, if you find yourself trusting your whole career and livelihood and that of your family to those printed up guidelines that aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

I applaud anyone willing to blow the whistle, but knowing the severity of the cost as the son of a whistleblower myself who grew up hard as a result of all that was lost, any whistleblower should only act with both eyes wide open and some sort of escape plan in place for protecting yourself and family when the protection promises from the company turn out to be bogus and only lipservice to governmental requirements and investors, and bait to lull the would-be whistleblowers out of hiding.

It would pay big dividends to listen closely to what Dr. Rost is saying, and not be too quick to dismiss or naievely suppose that Pfizer & HP are the only Fortune 500s that will destroy an employee to protect fraudulent schemes and the millions of dollars they individually as officers stand to gain in addition to wanting to avoid prison or shareholder suits. In their perspective, each and any employee is dispensable when the stakes are that high and printed corporate policies should be read through that lense.

I don't know which "big pharma" company you're with, but virtually all of the big ones have faced false claims act prosecution by the federal government that included retaliation claims by the whistleblower, despite these printed policies to the contrary. Success in that litigation, as Dr. Rost's experience proves, is not only lengthy, which can destroy a family, a marriage, lead to bankruptcy or suicide just while waiting out the years and riskiness of litigation; but also is ALWAYS "ify" even with great evidence.

But if you really want to risk all of that and put that much trust in your company's "words", I would strongly suggest getting photocopies of those policies and all the rest before you report anything, because after the company fires you and confiscates all of the documents, books, etc. in your possession, having a copy of those policies and the date they were printed MAY (not will, but may) be something that can recover enough years down the road for your family to at least live on.

It's a cruel industry, and case law is replete with the filings of those who were willing to fight and actually found a good lawyer-- there's no telling how many more we'll never know of who simply took their beatings and abuse for their integrity and then went away quiet into the night either without enough solid evidence retained in their possession (that the company didn't confiscate) to mount any kind of case, or that signed away their rights with a severance and comprehensive non-disclosure agreement.

Sadly, too many calling themselves "corporate counsel" have overlooked the fact that their representation is of the entity, not of the officers or directors. True corporate counsel who have not been corrupted by their own potential gains would actually follow those printed guidelines as it truly is in the company's best interest to identify, correct, and self-report if necessary, any wrong-doing that is found. And the professional ethics rules regulating lawyers-- and for violting which, most of these "corporate counsel" should be disbarred, prohibit them from ever doing anything to aid in the furtherance of a crime. In short, their obligation is to say no to the directors or execs who seek to implement illegal schemes to make millions rather than aiding and abetting, for which they themselves as the company's lawyers could and should be prosecuted. But again, playing the odds and risk management tells them that 1)they'll never get caught, and 2)if they do only the company will ever be punished, not them personally or their bank accounts made with ill-gotten booty. And, for that reason, the company legal departments and counsel are rubber stamps for the fraud rather than nipping illegal activity in the bud as these guidelines would try to imply.

Maybe I'm wrong and your company is the only exception to this approach, and has magically managed to compete successfully and hold its own (without breaking the law or then retaliating brutally against whistleblowers who ever saw or reported any wrong-doing) against all of the other fraudster companies and illegal schemes they employ to get advantage over the competition. Perhaps Santa and his elves make up the difference to keep your company successfully competing without reducing themselves to the schemes of all their competitors; but the statistics, and the money of your company (if it is indeed among the "big" pharma companies) all say that you're more likely yet more naieve than right.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2 to Anon 2: Man this is beautiful. My whole comment was in fact purely cynical. The Santa thing was the clue, but thankfully you misread it and we all got such wonderful summary of the reality. The big one I am refering to ain't any different from others,even though if I revealed the name and origin everyone would say: "not them, for crying out loud."
You are exactly right what is behind their "promises" and why do they have them. Yes I was naive enough and believed, for the rules were introduced from the very top, from a man considered one of the most ethical and successful in the business. Maybe, just maybe it is in fact meant to be the "good" thing but once it gets down the food chain, the rules change. Those involved in deliberate and planned misconduct for their own gains, change the rules the way they see fit. Interestingly, even when they are confronted with strong evidence they show no fear and they admit nothing. Of course in many cases they would pay off people to get an air tight release and that story is over. They may change methods of misconduct but the business goes on as usually.
Lets continue to "educate" everyone but especially those who may think of reaching for that whistle once they had enough. Obviously there is a great need and lot of experience and knowledge out there. Thanks Doc Peter for getting it started.

Anonymous said...

This is great debate.
I also know how it is to bring it to the attention of the Corporate Compliance Officer, about illegal buisness practices, to only be called to the carpet by my boss for going outside the chain of command. His punishment was to deny me a raise and then pull my name for contention for a promotion.
I then contacted the "Corporate Compliance Officer" an attorney with a copy of the Corporate Policy on Whistleblowing and how anonymity was promised and that retaliation would not be tollerated.
The only results to date is the Boss being promoted and the Compliance Officer being promoted to a Corporate Officer and granted millions of dollars in stock options.
I am still employed, while I am not asked to participate in the ripping off of the tax payers, I have been attacked professionally and continue to work in a very hostile envioroment.

Peter Rost said...

This story was picked up here:

Whistleblowers: Who Are They? OpEdNews, PA

Whistleblowers, Who are They? CounterPunch

Mike Driehorst said...

"But I always believed, that just like a professional driver, I’d be able to pull this stunt off. I’ve never encountered anything I couldn’t resolve in the end."

That's probably the sentiment all "whistleblowers" have: They believe they will escape, if not unscathed, then at least they'll be able to survive the wrath that'll be headed their way.

I'm glad that only 16 percent from the study regret their decision.

I just heard of a friend who is a sales rep in your former industry whose company has banned employees from blogging. No matter the subject.

Yes, shut up the messenger(s) -- no matter what the message is.

I'm in PR, but I'd never do PR for a pharma. It seems like I'd be selling my soul.

Anonymous said...

Somewhere in the middle:

Dear Mr. XXXXX

Thank you for your letter as well as enclosed records of your case. I forwarded your documents to our experts who will have a closer look into the matter.
Hoping that an appropriate solution can be found, I take this opportunity jada jada jada,

The top of the drug chain

The end:

Dear Mr. XXXXX,

Thank you for raising concerns related to your employement with XXXXX and alleged breaches of codes. Your allegations have been looked into seriously and have been completely investigated by appropriate experts at XXXXX.
We are convinced that the solution reached related to your departure from XXXXX has been appropriate, and can confirm that adequate steps have been taken where any allegations related to breaches of codes could be substantiated. We therefore close this case and wish you jada, jada, jada.

Kind regards,

Global xxxxxxxx

Anonymous said...

I just got a great idea. All interested Pharma employees should begin literally wearing bags on their heads and blog in spite of company policy as "Your doctor's disgruntled Pfizer(Merck,GSK,Lilley) drug pusher"

If you haven't seen it yet, immediately go rent 'The Corporation' it talks about a corporation as a psychological individual (since they get some of the rights granted to individuals). The diagnosis? Psychopathic.

Thank you Peter Rost for blowing the whistle. I really hope you are helping getting a snowball started that will make good health easier to achieve for more folks in this country.

I totally think that your introspection resonates with people. You are being real, human, and showing vulnerability. We don't want to hear about superhumans that are richer and better looking than we are, we want to hear about how people like us can get off their butts and do something for a change. The more you resemble that regular guy (sure you have your special talents and make some swoon), the more I think you will get a dialogue.

MsMelody said...

Should more be said . . .

I assume your generic letter represented the way pharma deals with Whistleblowers. I had to read it twice. It sounded so very much like interaction with a government regulatory agency of my acquaintance.

If you can actually contact a person at FDA, NIH, CDC, to "discuss" a problem with a particular drug, and that person agrees to check into it, BOOM, in the blink of an eye (or at least within 4-6 weeks), you'll hear from your "investigator" that they have checked with the company who manufactures the drug responsible for your complaint, and "the company" assures them they've never heard this complaint before, there is no evidence that such a problem could arise, that the agency much be dealing with a crank, thank you very much. Case closed.

When regulatory agencies (and the Congressional overseers who watchdog for "we the people") serve as a marketing/PR branch for Big Pharma, we must ask: Who is really watching out for US?

Has anyone seen the latest: We Americans must all rush to get our flu shots. A crawl on CNN informed the viewers that supply may outstrip demand, and unless we consume the supply, it will be returned to manufacturer and destroyed--and profits for pharma will suffer. BUT, we may suffer, too, in that next flu season pharma may not be willing to make as much flu vaccine, and then we will all die due to vaccine unavailability. Guess we should all be afraid . . . very afraid . . . and rush to the support of Big Pharma.

BTW, Peter, I like your "new" blog. It allows a lengthier timeframe for discussion.

Anonymous said...

Its not just about Pharma and its not just about the US. But its not just about big managers neither:

"Clearly, there are lots of good, conscientious people in every industry; yet, most of them don’t end up in such an exposed situation.

The reason for that is, I think, that when you work in lower or middle management, you don’t see the big picture and you don’t see all the things that are going on. It’s not your job to deal with those problems. And, at least in my experience, once you get to a more senior management level, that’s when suddenly all hell breaks lose."

Just think of healthcare. Here even the employees at the end of the chaine see a big enough part of the picture to be concerned - and consequently also risk to become whistleblowers. They risk to loose their job ending on blacklists with no chance ever to find something else in that area.

Dear Mr. Rost, many of your statements are perfectly right and its important to make them, but please dont forget that at the end you are still a very privileged whistleblower.

Anonymous said...

It ain't generic! If I inserted the names at this time, it is likely I would get their lawyer's letter and possibly worse. Personally I am conviced all the big pharma security offices are watching all the blogs related to their business. If "my" X boys are doing the same, they can guess but not be sure for a lot of people did get similar treatment and have the proofs on file.
Any similarity with regulatory agency is purely due to the same phylosophy of dealing with us.

MsMelody said...

Interestingly, I just heard a statistic that there are over 480,000 blogs related to diabetes. In an attempt to sell his book, someone near to me has an internet site at This is NOT a blog site, but amazingly, it gets numerous hits from both pharma and the government. I agree . . . Big Brother (Big Pharma) IS watching!

Anonymous said...

Big Pharma Brother- BPB, maybe watching, recording, analysing and even putting the real names to the, non-name commentators, but they ain't reacting.
No counter-commenting, no denying, no nothing. Why? It is plain simple.
You saw it in The Godfather,Sopranos and other gems of the dark side, and is called - Omerta. The code of silence, the code of non-comment, the code of no admission and the code of not-even-discussion of the subject, wrong doing they are acused of, period.
One can challenge them as much as one possibly can, with all kinds of facts, figures, pictures you name it. Omerta-nothing. They would answer or comment only on those aspects of the issue that are in their interest or advantage and in such a way that no conection can be made to those aspects that are not in their interest.
It is an art that
those who are involved in these functions with BPB, developed both with thier specific education and experience they got most likely in major law inforcement, investigative or sicret services, before they joined BPB to make some real money.
How do we counter that?