Whistleblowers: Time to Change Our View?

Theranos and Facebook have been in the news a lot lately. The stories are unrelated, but both prominently feature whistleblowers – brave individuals who brought forward their concerns about the company’s behavior but who got nowhere internally.

Facebook Whistleblower

In the case of Facebook, Frances Haugen, former data scientist and Facebook employee, has testified before a Senate subcommittee that the company knew about the detrimental effects the platform had on young teens, yet has done nothing about it. Haugen has come forward to encourage the government to take action. She likened the situation to seat belts + automakers and cancer + tobacco companies.

Haugen hopes that the government will enact policies and laws that will force social media giants like Facebook to do more to protect their users.

Theranos Whistleblower

In the Theranos trial, Erika Cheung, a former Theranos lab associate testified about the failure of the company’s testing equipment and how executives ignored the findings. She also revealed details about the toxic work environment and the degree of isolation/secrecy that was present in the organization.

“I kept running it and it kept failing, it kept failing, it kept failing,” she said. “It was Thanksgiving Day and no one was in the lab—it was just me by myself—and I was freaking out. I contacted this help line we had and said, ‘I don’t know what to do, this quality control keeps failing, I’m resetting the whole system, but I don’t feel comfortable sending out this patient’s sample.’”

Unequal Legal Protection

Every country has its own set of whistleblower protection laws – laws designed to protect individuals from retaliation from companies. In the US there is the Dodd-Frank Act which empowers the SEC to take action against a company that threatens a whistleblower and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

The laws make it clear that bringing concerns to regulatory bodies (like the SEC) or government agencies is protected. What is less clear is whether any protection is extended when a whistleblower leaks stories to the media. This is exactly the situation for Haugen who shared documents taken from Facebook with 60 Minutes.

In an Associated Press interview with Facebooke executive Monika Bicker, Bickert had this chilling response when asked if the company would sue or retaliate against the whistleblower: “I can’t answer that.”

Canada’s whistleblower protection laws are sorely in need of an upgrade. With so little protection, it is not surprising that many potential whistleblowers stay silent – allowing companies to continue to run with out any oversight or accountability.

Very Little Incentive

In fact there is often very little incentive for anyone anywhere in the world to take on big corporations. The personal repercussions can be daunting:

  • Being blacklisted in the industry
  • High legal costs
  • Having your life turned upside down by opposing lawyers and the press

And even if you aren’t going to go to public authorities, just raising concerns to company leadership can be daunting.

I count myself fortunate that I’ve always had one executive that I could go to with concerns about the way the company was operating without fear of repercussion, but I know that others are not so lucky.

What I would like to discuss with the #hcldr community is what can be done? Do we see whistleblowers as troublemakers or people who are doing a civic duty? What protections are needed? Is there a right way/wrong way to bring concerns forward?

Join us on the next #hcldr tweetchat on Tuesday October 12th at 8:30pm ET (for your local time click here) when we will discuss the following topics:

  • T1 Is there a right way/wrong way to bring a serious concern about the organization you work at, to leadership?
  • T2 At what point would you leave an employer that was behaving poorly or where you had tried to bring concerns up to management? What factors would you consider?
  • T3 What additional support or protection do whistleblowers need?
  • T4 Retaliation in healthcare is/has been prevalent – nurses don’t speak up against surgeons, as an example. What needs to change in healthcare so more whistleblowers come forward?

References

Arbel, Tali. “EXPLAINER: Could Facebook sue whistleblower Frances Haugen?”, Associated Press, 9 October 2021, https://apnews.com/article/facebook-whistleblower-frances-haugen-legal-retaliation-0f74fc76973a4e83ec457c35c04f8767, accessed 11 October 2021

Kelly, Samantha Murphy and Duffy, Clare. “Facebook whistleblower testifies company ‘is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny’”, CNN, 6 October 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/05/tech/facebook-whistleblower-testify/index.html, accessed 11 October 2021

Khorram, Yasmin. “Theranos whistleblower testifies blood-test machines were about as accurate as a coin toss”, CNBC, 15 September 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/15/former-theranos-employee-erika-cheung-edison-machines-failed-tests.html, accessed 11 October 2021

Eldred, Sheila Mulrooney. “What the Theranos whistleblowers learned about ethics in health startups”, MedCity News, 18 October 2019, https://medcitynews.com/2019/10/what-the-theranos-whistleblowers-learned-about-ethics-in-health-startups/, accessed 11 October 2021

D’Onfro, Jillian. “Whistleblower Erika Cheung: Theranos Scandal Was ‘Canary In Coal Mine’”, Forbes, 29 October 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jilliandonfro/2019/10/29/whistleblower-erika-cheung-theranos-scandal-was-canary-in-coal-mine/?sh=5c6e86972130, accessed 11 October 2021

Tugend, Alina. ““It Kept Failing”: Whistleblower Erika Cheung on Working at Theranos”, California Magazine, https://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/just-in/2019-03-16/whistleblower-erika-cheung-on-working-at-theranos, accessed 11 October 2021

Farrell, Paul. “UN: lack of whistleblower protection has ‘chilling’ effect on exposing wrongdoing”, The Guardian, 13 October 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/13/un-lack-of-whistleblower-protection-has-chilling-effect-on-exposing-wrongdoing, accessed 11 October 2021

von Scheel, Elise. “’A tissue paper shield’: Expert slams Canada’s lack of protections for whistleblowers”, CBC, 16 November 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/whistleblower-trump-canada-laws-1.5360774, accessed 11 October 2021

“Whistleblower Laws Around the World”, National Whistleblower Center, https://www.whistleblowers.org/whistleblower-laws-around-the-world/, accessed 11 October 2021

Image Credit

Photo by iMattSmart on Unsplash

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