Q&A with a Fortune 500 Whistleblower

In this Q&A, Diane Dye, CEO of People Risk Consulting talks to an anonymous whistleblower at a Fortune 500 company. This female executive shares her experience of encountering unprofessional and unethical behavior in a top organization, leading to harassment, racism, and a hostile work environment. Despite multiple reports over years with no action, this whistleblower took the initiative to report the misconduct, ultimately resulting in the individual’s dismissal after a lengthy investigation.

The Q&A highlights challenges in incident reporting and organizational preparedness for handling such issues. It sheds light on the importance of strong leadership qualities like integrity, trustworthiness, and effective communication skills to prevent toxic workplace cultures and ensure a safe environment for employees.

Diane: All right, so I am here today with a behind the scenes of the failure of when organizations do not fulfill incident reporting or enable voice within their organizations to the level that is going to help them, you know, really deal with the reality. So, tell me your story.

Executive: I worked for a very large organization in a leadership role. And when I was hired by this well known organization, that’s actually listed as one of the top 20 places to work, I was reporting to someone that I could see really quickly, was not professional, was not necessarily ethical in their behavior, in the way not just I was treated, but several people were treated. It was a man, and he definitely said things that he should not say. A lot of things were about women, and he was, like, targeting women and things like that, and just a lot of really unprofessional behavior for an organization that did not expect that from at all. So that’s how it started. And I was very surprised.

In fact, I was, at my first week or two of work, I knew right away that this was going to be a problem. And I was considering leaving within the first week or two. What I ended up doing is continuing on. As a leader, I felt like it was my obligation to make sure this got reported so that this wasn’t happening to me or to anyone else. And I saw it was happening to a number of people. It had been going on for years. People had reported this person and nothing came of it.

Statistic: 77% of employees believe their workplace has measures in place for reporting harassment. 50% of employees have reported some form of harassment. 54% of harassment complaints are fully resolved. 9.6% of female employees say raising the issue made it worse.

Diane: What were some of the reasons, you believe, nothing came of it?

Executive: And I think part of the reason for that, quite frankly, is a lot of these people that had reported this man didn’t really understand the human resources processes for corrective action. So they way they reported it was not tangible. So this person got off the hook over and over again. In hindsight, I believe someone should have dived deeper into this because so many people had turned him in and nothing happened. When I did this, I had so much to keep in mind. I’ve been a leader for over 25 years. And so I had a lot of really solid information. This was not okay. He gave information about employees that he shouldn’t have given and said completely inappropriate things in front of employees and clients.

Diane: What kind of innappropriate things were said? Was it racism? Harassment?

Executive: All of the above. Everything rolled into one. So there was racism and harassment. It was both. It was really both. I’ll give you some verbatim things that he would say.

He basically told one person that she “could be a poll dancer,” and another lady that started work, he goes, “yeah, she’s just blowing and going.” There was a girl that actually had to work in Winnemucca, Nevada. And he goes, “oh, I want to go with her to Winnemucca. And I’m going to get a shirt that says Winnemucca. Because that sure rhymes with a lot of things…”

I could go on. I mean, it’s just so much stuff, especially targeting women. But it was about sexuality, sexism, and prostitution and just saying, like, sayings and things that are really inappropriate in a very world class place.

And also he gave medical information about people, talking about why he fired people in the past and saying it in front of, like, in the lobby of a client’s building, talking about a person and firing them because of their specific medical issues. He was making comments about middle eastern people that were racist.

And honestly, I sat back and watched some of it because it is not a really fun experience to have to report someone. So, after watching for awhile, what I ended up doing is I addressed him personally. I let him know his behavior wasn’t appropriate. I had to be at a conference with him, and he started talking about the legs of this woman and how he’s “seen a lot prettier people.” This was an HR person he was talking about.

And I just told him it wasn’t appropriate and I don’t appreciate that. And it wasn’t well received. He was very angry that I said it. Then, later, it just continued and continued. And he basically told me, “there’s no way I’ll ever get fired from this organization because I have dirt on two of the people I report to. It’s like I’ve got so much dirt on them, they can never fire me.” What I ended up doing, just because I believe in giving people a heads up, I let his boss know that this wasn’t going well and that I was planning on reporting this. So I gave him a heads up and he told me to talk to HR.

HR said, “this is so out of control. You need to report this to the corporate hotline.” So I did that, and I gave, like, ten pages of documentation. And after I did that, it took corporate a long time to investigate and to complete the investigation. Every single thing I had documented, I had witnesses. It wasn’t just me and this person. Everything was witnessed. I had to continue to report to this person. And obviously, as the investigation went on, he knew I turned him in because it was very specific information and conversations that were had. So he knew it was me. I had to continue reporting to him for over three months.

Statistic: 1-2 weeks is the average and recommended time for an HR investigation to take.

Diane: How was that experience for you?

Executive: It wasn’t fun. What happened then is corporate compliance got back to me and said every single thing that I had reported was validated. They had made recommendations to his department and to his leaders. The recommendations were that he was a pretty big liability, obviously, and it was recommended to let him go. But instead of doing that, what they did is they moved him to another department, and he still had a team of people reporting to him.

The boss called me, said, “oh, I’m sure you’re happy you aren’t reporting to him now.” And I said, “actually, I didn’t do this just for me. This person can’t have people that he’s leading. It’s just not appropriate. It’s a huge liability and risk, and it’s not great.” So I said I wasn’t happy with the solution and the outcome. And what ended up happening is, after I had reported this is he got moved. He didn’t lose pay, but he got a different position, kept the same pay, and had a team reporting to him. Several other people came out of the woodwork and came forward with more information that they turned in about him.

And he continued the same behavior even after getting chance after chance, continued the same behavior. More people came forward with new information, and finally he was let go. So that’s how that went.

Diane: How many years were there between when you noticed this reporting to him, to the time where he was finally let go?

Executive: From when I got involved, probably about a year. But keep in mind, I wasn’t the first person to report something about him. It was six to eight years from the first incident until the company let him go. And, actually, there was another woman who reported to him who also had to call the corporate hotline at the same time I did. So there were two of us that had to call corporate hotline at the same time. Before us, though, there were many who either didn’t know how to document or didn’t know the process. So they fell through the cracks. This went on for six to eight years.

Diane: So, so that’s a huge systemic breakdown that perpetuates risk. In incident disclosure, because you have an individual who is putting the company at risk with his language, comments, harassment, sexism, racism. In today’s climate, that’s not freedom of speech. That’s creating a hostile working environment.

So where you have the breakdown occuring is in the incident disclosure. And it not that the disclosure didn’t take place. It’s the preparedness on the other end. And its the preparedness to understand there are some instructional gaps on how to document and report in a way that aids investigators. I believe organizations want to have these things documented. But they’re not prepared on the back end to deal with the complexities of what happens if someone does disclose. The defer you to the hotline. But, meanwhile, you’re still reporting to the person and your identity as a whistleblower is not protected. This put you at risk as well.

Executive: Being a whistleblower, I was in actually a way worse of a situation after I did that. The corporate hotline was so short staffed. So it took them a long time to investigate. Three months. It took three months to complete the investigation. And during that time, the working environment was made much more hostile for me be him because he knew I blew the whistle.

Diane: So there was no protective process. Therefore, for that three months while he was under investigation, because the allegations were so specific, you were at risk. Apparently he was told about the specific allegations as well, which allowed him to link that to you.

Executive: Yeah. The way that it worked is they had to question him about incidents that occurred. And obviously, what was the common link and denominator? That was me. When he was questioned about it, he obviously put it together. But there was no protection for me. None.

Diane: The risk on top of that is that you have someone who’s being investigated for a hostile working environment. Meanwhile, as a part of the investigation, a hostile working environment is being actively created through the process, or lack thereof, to protect a whistleblower. This disincentivizes anyone who sees something to say something. Because there is increased risk in reporting. You can have a reporting process in place. But if you don’t have a process for the protection the whistleblowers, that can actually do more harm sometimes than good. That leads to hush culture. It leads to just don’t say anything because it’s going to get worse once you say something.

Executive: And in addition to that, I stayed with the organization for three and a half years. This happened in my first year. After that, there were people internally who protected this person. He’d been there doing this for eight years before I even got there. And they were not happy that this happened with him. So I was targeted by some of his friends that were in high leadership positions as well. It was not an easy three and a half years for me at all.

Diane: That’s really difficult. And I’m sorry to hear that you went through that. So, if you were to flip the script and it was done differently. So you’re a leader. You’re, you’re an executive. You’re, you’re not unfamiliar with process and procedure around things and the right way to have things be done. If you were to flip the script and you were in charge of this disclosure, how would you have done this differently?

Executive: Well, first of all, it wouldn’t have gone on this long. There’s no way that the things that were continually turned in should have been addressed a long time ago. It would not have happened like this. The other thing that would have happened is direct conversations with this person and corrective action. In addition to that, if someone had reported a leader, there would have to be arrangements made so that they’re protected and not continuing to report to this person.

This particular case has such a long tail to it because it’s an eight year long collection and reporting of these incidents. These incidents created this hostile working environment with this particular leader. So that process from the first incident and the first reporting and the documentation of it and the correction or non correction of behavior is part of it. It really starts way back before it reaches critical mass. And it’s about an organization being willing to put their foot down on their values and say, “this is not us.”

There are very strong values instilled in the organization. I would say this is just one arm of the organization or a pocket where this is happening. I don’t believe that’s true in other areas because I’ve worked in other areas. So, it was one little pocket slipping through the cracks. But that pocket can create risks for the whole organization. There are very high values instilled in most areas in the culture that weren’t being honored in this pocket.

Diane: How do you think it was that pocket slipped through the cracks?

Executive: It’s a little bit different division and the oversight of that area is an anomaly. I do think there are leaders, though, that should have taken accountability for that. They didn’t. They just allowed it to happen because they were buddies with this guy. I think what happened, too, is the HR group that was specific to this little pocket, maybe wasn’t the strongest HR group. They were understaffed. And so, when things got reported, they didn’t handle it appropriately.

Diane: What would have made a stronger HR group?

Executive: It was just two people, and they weren’t escalating things the way they should have. When multiple people report things like this, there should have been better direction to the leaders that have this guy that this guy reported to. They could have also provided training to the leaders.

So really, there’s also an accountability thread within the organization, within the HR function. Even if you have a large organization where you have to have assigned team members for specific business units, that there has to be some thread of accountability as to what’s happening within those business units for corporate oversight and transmission of values. So there was a breakdown in oversight of that business unit’s assigned HR personnel.

Diane: Right. Well, let’s just go there and call out the elephant in the room. Were all these. Were all these male leaders, perhaps older?

Executive: Yes.

Diane: I truly believe that the younger generations are going to save us all. I really do, because this type of behavior is not acceptable. Misogyny is not acceptable. Racism, discrimination, overt sexism, all of that. But, you know, these men, they come from a different era completely. And we giggle and laugh at the absurdity of shows like Mad Men.

This is a mindset that is still present in some places. And it’s generational. But also, we are dealing right now with this cusp period of where this generational thought has to be dealt with in today’s context, because it’s not okay. And I have talked to leaders, executives in that generation, and some of them long for the good old days where you could say and do things like that. They long for those good old days like you long for your favorite candy as a kid. But the fact of the matter is there’s a high level of risk involved in that way of being.

Executive: Absolutely.

Diane: So although they are to their identity, they are not welcome to their identity of that variety within the workplace. I mean, if they want to exist like that in their social circles outside, you know, fine. It’s your life and your circle – also your personal consequences or not depending on who you surround yourself with. But, if you’re going to bring it inside the workplace, you have to understand as a leader, regardless of what generation that you’re in or what you believe, that you are dealing with an environment where it’s not the 1950s. It’s just not okay to be racist, sexist, educationalist and ageist, even all of those. It works both ways. Right? It’s also not okay for leaders who are younger than them to start saying, “well, you know what, old man? You’ve been in this job for too long. Get out.” It does work both ways.

Executive: Absolutely.

Diane: And we’re in a time where the workplace must have structures in place to disclose what’s counterproductive to not only the working environment, but the customer environment and things that directly impact the bottom line. Because I bet you dollars to donuts, if there’s a customer that’s within earshot of some of these things, that customer is not going to feel so good working with that company.

Executive: There were plenty of inappropriate customer interactions as well.

Diane: What was the net effect with the customers?

Executive: Honestly, some of them occurred before I got there. But I was there for one. And I shut it down pretty fast because I was present. You can definitely be at risk with losing a customer because it’s not appropriate. It’s a huge customer risk within the organization. And its a risk for anyone else that he interacted with.

Diane: Look at laws surrounding harassment and laws surrounding hostile working environment. I’m not an attorney. But this is a risk that can be mitigated by creating a certain environment within the workplace. Do whatever you like in your private life. Be whoever you want. But when you and your buddies impede on the workplace, that is a completely different animal. Then you have risk.

Executive: The interesting part was this person was giving, given multiple opportunities to change behavior and didn’t happen. They continued the same behavior. There were no repercussions for the behavior for years. It went on too long.

Diane: Exactly. And, and that going on too long can be headed off at the pass by being disclosure prepared and understanding those nuances of how incident reporting and the process of incident follow-through, communication and ancillary risks, like this is carried out. The internal communication aspect is important. How do you conduct an investigation without revealing the identity of the individuals that are bringing it forward? How do you protect the whistleblower within the organization to encourage employees to report? A lot of lip service can be done to “see something, say something.” And the fact of the matter is, if employees are saying something until they are blue in the face and nothing is happening, that too can impact the working environment,

So carrying this forward into your future, into your new career. How has this impacted you in a positive way?

Executive: Well, one of the things that I do is I actually consult on leadership. That’s one of my purposes, is really to help empower leaders and create really great leaders in organizations that build their teams and have positive cultures. So that is one of the things that I take from what I went through. I can relate to other people that may be going through similar experiences and really help teach leaders how to do the right things with their people.

Diane: What are some aspects of a really great leader?

Executive: Oh, gosh, there are so many. One is integrity, though. That would be one of the top. Its integrity, trustworthiness, being vulnerable and open, being honest, great communication skills and providing a great vision. Those are some of the key things.

People Risk Consulting (PRC) is a human capital risk management and change management consulting firm located in San Antonio, Texas. PRC helps leaders in service-focused industries mitigate people risk by conducting third-party people-centric risk analysis and employee needs assessments. PRC analyzes and uses this data alongside best practice to make strategic recommendations to address organizational problems related to change and employee risk. The firm walks alongside leaders to develop risk plans, change plans, and strategic plans to drive the human element of continuous improvement. PRC provides technical assistance, education, training, and trusted partner resources to aid with execution. PRC is a strategic partner of TriNet, Marsh McClennan Agency, Cloud Tech Gurus, Predictive Index, and Motivosity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *