Rules for Whistleblowers: a Handbook for Doing What’s Right

Bob Sullivan

Ever see something at work that you just knew wasn’t right, but felt like there was nothing you could do? Maybe there is something you can do. And maybe you can do it … anonymously.

When whistleblower Francis Haugen came forward and testified before Congress about what she thought was going wrong inside Facebook, she changed big tech forever. Or did she?

I recently talked about this with Stephen Kohn, author of the book, Rules for Whistleblowers, A Handbook for Doing What’s Right. He’s also one of the nation’s leading whistleblower attorneys. We discussed the lasting impact Haugen did (or didn’t) have on the tech industry. But more important, he offered a roadmap for people who work in tech to come forward if they think something terribly wrong is happening at their company. And he explained how workers can do this without putting their livelihoods at risk.

“What we’ve seen is for every one whistleblower who’s willing to go public and really risk a lot, there’s a thousand who would go non-public and provide supporting information,” he said to me on the Duke Debugger podcast that I host. But those who go public often get “crushed” by well-funded legal teams.

“That’s why Congress in 2010 with the Dodd-Frank Act created these… what I call super anonymity laws. When I discussed those with the Senate banking committee, when the law was being debated …  I’ll never forget it, the Senate staffer said to me, ‘Steve, if Wall Street knows who you are, you will be crushed no matter what, and your career will be destroyed. You know, we have to create procedures to prevent that.’ And I said, ‘Hallelujah!’ ”

Whistleblowers can come forward without making a big public display, and in fact, government investigators often prefer that, he said.

“Anonymous means you don’t have to set your hair on fire. You don’t have to burn your bridges,” he said. “And the government wants you to stay working in the company so you can provide additional information about violations. Once you have filed, sometimes the government agencies will share your information or you’re aware of other agencies that might be interested, and  … say, tell the SEC to share your information. So it begins a process. The bottom line is these laws make it easier to do the right thing to report misconduct and not necessarily lose your job and career.”

Provisions in the Dodd-Frank bill have changed the nature of whistleblowing and they include large financial incentives.

“The SEC alone has paid whistleblowers about $1.5 billion in rewards, and in almost every one of those cases, no one even knows who the whistleblower is. They don’t receive big press reports. It’s almost all under the radar,” Kohnm said.

Readers can listen to the entire interview, or read a transcript, at this site.  Kohn’s book is called  Rules for Whistleblowers, A Handbook for Doing What’s Right and will be available at  National Whistleblower Center and bookstores on June 1

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