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Whistleblowers – Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t


The recent case of Infosys’ whistleblower episode has brought many things to the front. One, to imagine that as the CEO, one is beyond scrutiny from the lower rungs of the corporate totem pole, is no longer a safe assumption to make. You are watched and like the Miranda statement, ‘anything that you say may be held against you’.

Second, in many cases, the whistleblower’s complaint could be one of misinterpretation or a misreading of facts, not being privy to the actual facts and discussions. Worse, it could even be a case of someone’s angst being vented. However, whatever be the case, the company in question or the CEO in question, has no way to retaliate. They have to investigate, and if the complaint is true, take action. However, if the case is false, they just have to close the issue and get on with life. Since it is purported to be made for the benefit of the corporate, no action is normally taken against the whistleblower, even if (s)he can be identified, which itself is a tough task.

Third, by extension, the whistleblower is a shoot and scoot artist. (S)he complains and sits back to watch all the fun and if the company’s stock price tanks due to the complaint (even before the investigations), then so be it.

However, the issue becomes a lot simpler when the whistleblower is an external entity and hence identifiable. In most cases, where corporate ethics are followed, the same process is followed – investigation and action, if required. The only difference is in case of an external and identifiable whistleblower, one can be sure of certain action ‘against’ the whistleblower.

In case of corporates where ethics is simply on the CEO’s wall in the form of a superbly designed poster, whether the investigation happens or not, the external whistleblower is faced with retribution.

I have personal experience with this.

In two highly reputed companies – one of them being a marquee IT Services firm, I had complained of extremely toxic behavior by the SPOC of the company. I had even produced written evidence in the form of emails and transcript of conversations and sought a meeting with the Marketing head. The meeting duly happened and I was given homilies about how the company values ethics and does not tolerate ‘bad behavior’ and was assured that action will be taken.

One month later, my contract was terminated (a contract that had run for over 5 years, without a hitch). Last I heard, the toxic employee is still with the company.

In another case, which was a marquee government organization of the central government, I had forwarded an email alleging sexual harassment by the SPOC of the department against one of my employees. And, lo and behold, not only was our contract terminated abruptly but all of our employees mysteriously decided to join another agency on the same day, which was appointed in our place. And to add insult to injury, our registration was also not renewed and nor were we paid our dues (they are still pending, even after 3 years). Even appeals to the Prime Minister’s office went unanswered. So much for ethics!

In both cases, we were declared ‘an uncooperative vendor’ and a ‘potential trouble maker’.

This is particularly severe for service companies, especially the small and medium variety, which decide to take a principled stand. As a result, the choice is between business and dignity and both are, at least in India, mutually exclusive.

At least in the Infosys’ case, the anonymous complaint has been given the oxygen of publicity and given Chairman Nilekani’s unimpeachable reputation, redressal will be fast and precise. However, much of corporate India and almost all of the Government of India, still reeks of unbridled corruption and selective ethical behavior.

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