White House Interpretation Leaves Whistle-Blowers at Risk

Shortly after signing a new law to regulate the accounting profession and deter corporate fraud, President Bush released a controversial statement with the White House's interpretation of the law's whistle-blower provision. Lawmakers are concerned the interpretation will weaken intended safeguards and prevent accountants, auditors and others from coming forward to report corporate wrongdoing.

Basically, the White House's position is that the law protects whistle-blowers from company retaliation, only if they talk to a congressional committee in the course of an investigation. Whistle blowers will still be exposed to risks, if they provide information to an individual lawmaker, federal agency or the media.

The lawmakers who crafted the provision have urged the White House to reconsider its position in view of the formidable risks facing those who wish to report securities fraud. James Fisher, director of the Emerson Center for Business Ethics, St. Louis University, explains, "The sad truth is that often things do not go well for whistle-blowers. They really end up often in a power struggle where they don't have the resources that a corporation would have."

In the meantime, the Public Employee for Environmental Responsibility offers tips that may help whistle-blowers not protected by the new law:

  • Try to blow the whistle without revealing your identity. Once revealed, bureaucracies tend to focus on the "disgruntled employee" source rather than the substance of the problem.
  • Don't focus on the unfair personnel aspects. If you get into personnel-related issues, such as contesting a poor performance review or retaliatory disciplinary actions, the employer will have the advantage, not the employee.
  • Keep copious records, memorialize conversations with letters to file and maintain a separate set of documents outside of work in a safe place.
  • Gauge the level of support among your co-workers for the concerns you are raising. There is safety in numbers.
  • Consult an attorney early. Don't wait until your career is in a crisis. Good legal advice may be able to help prevent the crisis.
  • Have a well-thought-out plan. Try to be clear-headed about precisely what you hope to accomplish and how. Don’t be naïve and think truth and justice will prevail.
  • Get a career counselor. You’ll need to give some thought to what you'll do next, if the whistle-blowing ruins your career path, which often happens.

-Rosemary Schlank

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