Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity at all over the past year is very familiar with the case of Jay Palmer, the Infosys employee in Alabama who blew the whistle on rampant visa and tax fraud within the giant Indian IT services provider's U.S. operations. Readers have received extensive, behind-the scenes coverage not only of the illegal activity, but of the harassment and retaliation Palmer has suffered as a result of choosing that lonely path. Many of us who have become familiar with the case have likely asked ourselves the same question: What would I have done if I had been in Palmer's position and discovered illegal activity in my workplace?
I had a fascinating conversation on this topic last week with Dr. Michael Brodsky, a psychologist and medical director at Bridges to Recovery, a residential behavioral health facility in Southern California for adults with psychiatric disorders. Without mentioning the Palmer case or Infosys in any way, I explained to Dr. Brodsky that I have covered any number of cases of illegal or unethical corporate behavior over the years, including an ongoing whistleblower case, and that I was eager to get his advice from a psychologist's perspective on coping with the stress of discovering illegal or unethical behavior on the part of one's employer.
I asked Dr. Brodsky if he had any advice for workers in the trenches on coping with a situation in which their company has been shown to have acted unethically or illegally in some regard, and he said a lot depends on how the employee is generally disposed towards the company:
Some employees will feel a high degree of loyalty because the company has treated them well in the past; other employees will feel they were deceived, or the company is behaving in a way that they don't want to be associated with. Before they think about how to proceed in a situation where there is corporate malfeasance, employees have to decide for themselves, probably in the privacy in their own homes with their own thoughts, where their loyalty lies - whether they want or need to protect their own interests, or stand with their employer and try to be supportive. Of course, it's a lot trickier when there are questions about illegal activity by the corporation.
Suppose an employee is asked to do something that he knows is unethical or even illegal. Times are tough and nobody wants to lose his job, so how do you handle a situation like that when you otherwise love your job and you can't afford to lose it? Dr. Brodsky said you have to check with your conscience first:
Individual employees have different thermostats about what feels OK. In some professions, a little cheating is almost expected. So it depends on the specifics of the situation. If you really feel like you can't proceed, and you can find a nice way to politely say to your boss, "I'm not comfortable doing that," sometimes you have to do that and take the risk to your career. Probably in those situations, where you need to decline to do something that's unethical, less is more: It's better to say as little as possible about your reasons, and it's certainly better to avoid making pronouncements about what you think the morally correct thing to do is when you're saying "no" to your boss. If you're going to decline to do something your boss has asked you to do that sounds fishy or unethical, it's best to decline without offering an explanation.
How about a case in which I discover illegal activity in my company that has otherwise gone unreported? I don't want to risk losing my job by making an issue of it, but I certainly don't want to be party to the illegal activity. What's my most prudent course of action? Dr. Brodsky said that scenario arises surprisingly often at his facility, Bridges to Recovery:
We have corporate leaders of various kinds who are getting some help, some treatment from us, and more times than not they have to go through a little bit of soul-searching about whether they feel that the activity crosses the line. If it's illegal activity, your options include just refusing to participate; in some cases you can seek protection through the whistleblower laws. You might even - and this happens a lot more often than I realized before I was working here at Bridges to Recovery - people do have a conversation with a lawyer on their own, and consult their own attorney about what's required and what kind of jeopardy they might put themselves in if they participate. In my experience, people rarely regret doing the morally right thing, even if there's a short-term penalty in terms of their employment or how big a bonus they get. People rarely regret living up to their own conscience. The conscience can be a pretty harsh taskmaster, and when you don't do what your conscience wants you to do, sometimes you regret it for a long period of time.
I asked Dr. Brodsky if he's aware of any particular coping mechanism that's especially helpful in a situation where a whistleblower is vilified and ostracized by a company, rather than embraced for what he's bringing to light. His response shed some light for the rest of us on what Palmer is going through:
My honest answer has to be "no." It can be a very lonely road to be a whistleblower. And feeling the comfort of being in the right is sometimes cold comfort indeed, if ostracism follows. I think it's very tough, especially if there's a particular profession or industry that someone has devoted himself to, and he finds himself in the uncomfortable position of needing to stand up for something that goes against the ethos of the company or the whole industry.
So the question bears repeating: What would you have done?