Electronic Design

Whistle Blowing: Should I? And How To Do It Safely

I receive e-mails from readers confirming my criticisms of industry and academia and describing their own frustrations. They dare not complain to industry management or academic deans for fear of retribution, yet such complaints, if acted upon, might benefit their companies and colleges mightily. The CEO is the last to know of much bad management below him or her. (I was!) The company suggestion box offers little help. Usually, only suggestions which bring immediate cost reductions without any investment are considered.

The Internet provides a way for action! Through free, anonymous e-mail services (paid for by the advertising they carry), you can send complaints and suggestions to your managers, CEO, board of directors, or dean with no risk of punishment for speaking out.

You can get a list of such free e-mail services from any Internet directory by entering "free e-mail" as your inquiry. Provide fictitious identification. I tried with the name, "Whistle Blower," the password, "report," and a made-up address, sent a test e-mail to my real e-mail address, and it came through fine. Remember that you can send the same message to many people by merely adding their e-mail addresses as "cc" entries on your e-mail.

You can get management's e-mail addresses in a variety of ways, such as by asking secretaries; reading the company web site or letterhead; reading Moody's and other financial reports in a broker's office or the public library; using directories on the web; and otherwise using your own ingenuity. Your company webmaster has a list, if you can get it. At the very least you can address the company e-mail from its web site and ask that "the following message be forwarded to Mr. or Ms. X."

Nothing is perfect, of course. I once, as CEO of my robot company, wrote to the president of a major machine tool company, whistle blowing on unethical behavior of a group of his managers. They pumped me about my technology, implying that they might buy my products, then announced that they would do it themselves. Somehow, my letter never passed beyond his secretary's desk and we ended up in court. (I won a commitment that they wouldn't use my material for a period of years.)

As a consultant, I once blew the whistle on a client who wanted to use me to help deceive his customer. (See my book, Adventures Of An Entrepreneur. The details are too lengthy for this column.) For years I used the story as a problem of ethics, and my own tentative conclusion, after much discussion, was that I should have silently resigned and walked away. I still welcome comments.

Make your criticism specific and polite so that the manager can figure out how to proceed without being antagonized. If you say, "This outfit ain't no damn good," you may feel better, but nothing will happen. But if you say, "Someone is stealing inventory," there will be quick action.

A warning: if you defame an identifiable individual, and your identity is revealed, you can be sued, although proof is your defense. But if you defame a group, such as "the accounting department," it isn't libel. It's best to denounce a situation rather than an identifiable person or a few people. The manager, if he or she acts on your whistle, will soon do the identifying.

Perhaps there's an opportunity for Whistle.Com Corp. as an agent to pass on such anonymous whistle blowings for a small fee. You too can be a billionaire.

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