Why good organizations do bad things to good people

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David Hutton – March 21, 2011

Former integrity commissioner Christiane Ouimet's testimony to the House Public Accounts Committee seemed to be all about her: how she was victimized by the auditor general's intensive investigation; how she was forced out of office (with a $500,000 payoff); the damage done to her reputation and her health; and the interruption of her vacation to appear before the committee.

Virtually absent from the discussion were two very important groups of people: the whistleblowers whose cases were routinely rejected under Ouimet's leadership; and the alleged wrongdoers who she so effectively shielded from investigation.

At the meeting we caught glimpses of some whistleblowers. We saw former Transport Canada inspector Hugh Danford angrily berating Ouimet as she strode impassively from the committee room. Danford confessed tearfully afterwards to CBC's Laurie Graham how his life has been destroyed, "Look at me: I used to be a pilot. Would you want to fly with me?" Danford had tried to alert Transport Canada to systemic safety issues.

Also present were Dr. Shiv Chopra and his colleague Dr. Margaret Haydon—scientists who exposed how Health Canada pressured them to release inadequately tested drugs into the food supply. Sean Bruyea was there too, the former Gulf War intelligence officer who became a vocal advocate on behalf of wounded veterans whose benefits were being slashed. All of these people suffered severe reprisals for their dedication to the public interest. All tried to get help from Ouimet's office and were rebuffed. All wanted to hear what she had to say for herself.

But it's the other group of unrepresented people that I want to focus on: the alleged wrongdoers. Some may be innocent, but others may be found guilty of serious misconduct, negligence or even criminal acts.

Since May 2008, when I took over the leadership of FAIR—a registered charity devoted to the protection of whistleblowers—I have been approached by more than 150 truth-tellers seeking help. They are from all parts of the country, in government and in the private sector, in senior positions or front-line workers. And the types of wrongdoing they describe vary greatly too. But one aspect of their stories is uncannily similar—the types of reprisal taken against them. It's as if there were a procedure, a standard game plan that the aggressors follow.

What I've learned from these conversations is that it's easy—childishly easy—for wrongdoers to cover their tracks and to silence witnesses, especially when the offenders hold positions of power and trust. Here's how it's done.

The most dangerous wrongdoers are not low-level employees who may pocket the petty cash, but middle- and senior managers who engage in brazen, often well-planned schemes to further their own interests: contract fraud, grants to companies they own, payments for work that is never done, even policy decisions benefiting companies that reward them discreetly—and that they plan to work for after leaving the public service.

The federal government spends more than $500-million every day. Even in fairly small departments it seems possible to skim off thousands, sometimes millions, without attracting attention—and in large departments much more. If someone can do this year after year, perhaps for decades, it soon adds up. Pretty soon we are talking about serious money.

Not all misconduct is financially driven: some wrongdoers are simply incompetent, malevolent or self-absorbed who break much of what they touch, weaken their departments and make their employees' lives a misery—but they remain untouchable, protected by bosses who value their unswerving loyalty, or by close friends or family members in high places.

Pre-emptive strikes

Smart wrongdoers stay alert to possible threats, such as employees who seem too idealistic, too independent-minded or too competent. Such potential whistleblowers are often singled out for special treatment even before they realize that there's anything amiss. The wrongdoer may take pains to remain on good terms with these individuals (or at least to keep them guessing) while rubbishing them to others: senior management, human resources staff and auditors. By the time the whistleblower discovers the misconduct and tries to raise the alarm he or she has long since been discredited—labelled as untrustworthy, a problem employee with a grudge or even mentally unbalanced.

Wrongdoers within the management ranks also hold some trump cards: their unchallenged authority over employees; control over management processes; and the reluctance of their superiors to face embarrassment.

Isolation and harassment

The Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments, conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrated dramatically that most people are easily persuaded to "follow orders," to the extent of administering brutal, potentially lethal punishments to others—even when the person issuing the orders has no real authority or control over them.

When the person issuing the orders has real authority—by virtue of controlling subordinates' livelihood and careers—there seem to be virtually no limits. It's easy for a manager to isolate a suspected whistleblower, to threaten and humiliate them, and to engage other employees in such reprisals. Even close friends and colleagues of the employee may become afraid to be seen with them. Such harassment can inflict life-changing psychological injuries—leading to chronic depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and even driving some to suicide. But dishonest managers can readily inflict this type of vengeance without even leaving "fingerprints"—it's all deniable as being beyond their control.

Manufacturing evidence

Wrongdoers in positions of authority can also manipulate management processes to protect themselves and to discredit witnesses. Records of the truth-teller's 20-year unblemished career may suddenly disappear from their personnel file, to be replaced with reprimands and bogus complaints. Absurd work assignments and rigged performance appraisals can also be used to create 'proof' that the whistleblower is incompetent, lazy or disobedient.

False accusations and retaliatory investigations are another tried-and-tested tactic, sometimes accusing the whistleblower of the very wrongdoing that they have tried to expose. And grievances can be manipulated too. Under Canadian law a grievance is considered a 'comprehensive remedy' for employees who complain of reprisals, so they have no other recourse—even when the grievance process is managed by the people who are accused of wrongdoing.

Co-opting top management

As the cover-up and reprisals continue, top management often becomes implicated and committed to supporting the wrongdoers. This can happen in several ways: because the wrongdoers have persuaded top management into believing their version of the story; because the wrongdoing involves top management or reflects badly on them; or because top management has reflexively tried to minimize or ignore the problems in the past and now cannot turn back. That's why even good organizations, managed by honest and decent leaders, may engage in the most determined and contemptible reprisals.

Once top management is enlisted, however unwittingly, the entire resources of the organization can be deployed against the whistleblower, with devastating consequences.

Senior people may publicly malign the whistleblower's motives, character and mental stability. If a truth-teller initiates legal action, Justice Department lawyers are always assigned to defend the department—and their conduct in such cases too often smacks of revenge. The expression "heads on stakes" describes well the effect of such legal tactics—they send a stark warning to others.

Foreign Affairs whistleblower Joanna Gualtieri's lawsuit against her bosses for harassment was dragged out for 12 years, forcing her to answer more than 10,500 questions, until the judge ruled that government lawyers had abused the legal process. Since being fired, Dr. Shiv Chopra and his colleagues have spent 6 years in hearings before the Labour Relations Board and still have no ruling on their case. The government has paid more than $600,000 in fees to the now-retired manager accused of ordering their dismissal—to advise the legal team that is defending her actions.

Time is not on the whistleblowers' side. Given sufficient delay the wrongdoers will always win: the public forgets, evidence is lost or destroyed, witnesses move away or die, and the whistleblower finally collapses or gives up, exhausted—out of money and hope.

Soft landings

It's hard for the public to understand why people guilty of blatant misconduct so often receive soft landings. It's usually for the protection of others.

When a wrongdoer is unmasked, top management generally wants to keep this as quiet as possible. Wrongdoers may be moved to other departments, perhaps with promotions and glowing references, or they may be paid off in some way that ensures their silence. Punishing them may not even be considered an option: it is likely to create embarrassing publicity; it may confirm that top management erred before in supporting a scoundrel; and the wrongdoer may still be vigorously protected by loyal and influential friends.

Above all it's often dangerous to punish the wrongdoer because he or she knows where the bodies are buried: if cornered, who knows what revelations might follow. We might never have learned about Brian Mulroney indiscreetly pocketing wads of cash had the former PM not abandoned and bad-mouthed Karlheinz Schreiber, leaving the former Airbus promoter vulnerable to extradition and jail.

Solutions

When we understand how wrongdoers operate and the advantages that they have, it is clear that unmasking them—and protecting whistleblowers—is a challenge.

But it can be done. Sheila Fraser's investigation has shown that misconduct in the highest places can be exposed when there is leadership and the will to do it—even when the law is unhelpful. Ouimet's is the first case of misconduct to be exposed through the legislation that she was charged with administering—after three years of zero results when Ouimet was calling the shots.

With a competent and proactive commissioner and a new properly-written law, Ouimet's agency can still become what it was supposed to be: a powerful deterrent against misconduct and corruption in government and a beacon of hope for honest public servants.

To this end, FAIR has launched a campaign entitled "No More Ouimets" that has the support of more than 30 government ethics organizations. We call upon the government to claw back Ouimet's $500,000 settlement package, to sanction her for failing to perform her job, and, above all, to rebuild the anti-corruption agency that she was supposed to be creating.

Will this happen? It's entirely up to us. No important reform like this has ever come about without intense and unrelenting public pressure from citizens who believe that they can make a difference. Let's make our Canadian values of decency and honesty become a reality in Ottawa.

David Hutton is executive director of FAIR.

Original article on Hill Times website (subscription required)