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Don’t Shoot the Messenger

If you see something, say something. That’s the post-9-11 catchphrase meant to encourage people to report suspicious activity. It should also be the watchword that government agencies and businesses instill in their workers to promote the reporting of internal safety or security concerns. Unfortunately, employees who take this maxim to heart are more often vilified than valued.

Executives, whether in the private sector or government, tend not to appreciate rank and file employees who point out problems, even if they first do so quietly through the appropriate channels. (Most whistleblowers only go to outside watchdogs or the media as a last resort.) An analysis of 3,561 whistleblower cases, conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and reported by, found that most individuals who had raised concerns were left “with their careers, reputations and finances in tatters.”

Despite 16 federal laws protecting whistleblowers, they remain vulnerable to retaliation. Cases show that the travails they endure run the gamut from physical assaults to demotion and humiliation, but usually they simply get shown the door. In one recent case, a mechanic was terminated by United Parcel Service, Inc., after raising concerns about unsafe conditions in trucks at one of the company’s garages. The employee filed a whistleblower complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which found merit to the complaint, according to the Labor Department’s press release on the case. The company did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to pay the employee $243,000.

When organizations ignore warnings from staff, they not only imperil their own reputations, they imperil the public. Consider the case of Southwest Airlines, which was fined $10.2 million in March for continuing to fly 46 jets that weren’t inspected—six of which were later found to have cracks of several inches in their fuselages. The issue came to light thanks to two Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) whistleblowers who said the airline was pressuring the FAA to assign inspectors who would not report problems.

In January, Business Week focused on a similar case involving an Inspector General report vindicating another FAA whistleblower and allegations about inspectors overlooking a host of safety problems at Northwest Airlines during a 2005 mechanics strike.

That vindication took two years. For many whistleblowers, it never comes at all, according to the CIR study, which found that 97 percent of cases are lost because, whether the underlying charges are proven or not, “legal precedents created by the Federal Circuit Court have rigged the odds heavily against such employees” in terms of battling retaliation.

Several bills (H.R. 4047, S. 274, and S. 4040) would strengthen statutory protections for whistleblowers. Given that these individuals protect us all from risk by having the courage to report problems, we owe them a measure of protection in return. Executives should know that they can’t just shoot the messenger.