In the Trenches: Whistleblower fired after complaint about dropping standards

Acme reorganizes to cut costs, and ends up alienating a worthy environmental director when it cuts corners on important evironmental standards. The director complains, and is fired. Only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

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It was a deal he couldn’t refuse. Phil O’Dendron moved his family across the country so he could join Acme as its director of environmental reporting standards. This job involved extensive travel to Acme’s domestic plants for one specific purpose. Phil needed to standardize the methods and procedures each plant used for capturing environmental metrics, managing the data and reporting it in prescribed formats for every facet in which the EPA had its fingers. Phil reported to Acme’s environmental director, a person well respected for his extraordinary ability to extract meaningful information from buckets of seemingly random data and display it in a format that upper management could intuitively understand. Acme’s environmental group represented the triumph of science over politics.

After about a year, the executive offices spewed out another spasm of cost-cutting initiatives. One of them rattled the core structure of the environmental department. Under a now decentralized organization, Phil was responsible for compliance issues regarding only those materials that presented a risk of contaminating the land and water around any plant that might handle them too casually. He still traveled to Acme’s plants, but with a more limited and specific focus.

Another change was that Phil now reported to Lewie Katorze, whom Acme hired as director of operations. Lewie, by his own admission, was a big-picture guy who knew little and cared less about the intricacies of environmental matters. He saw his role as pure supervision and ruling the many Acme departments under his thumb by remote control.

It became clear to Phil that the combination of Lewie’s background, the decentralization and his own more limited role could raise problems. There was no effective global oversight. It was increasingly difficult to gather and report reliable data. Documentation accuracy was dissolving into shambles. Phil even discovered reporting violations and data errors.

For six months, Phil met with Lewie and other Acme brass to discuss the discrepancies and identify ways to fix the errors. He highlighted the risks involved with reporting faulty numbers to upper management, who would, in turn, report them to the government as true. He warned them about data that wasn’t validated before workers faced possible exposure to hazardous chemicals on the plant floor. The documentation for hazardous emissions was just as inadequate. Phil was concerned about errors including missing data, undocumented numbers, incorrect variables and other sloppy work. And, he noted, the reporting system Acme uses is now considered obsolete and some of the test methods Acme uses don’t conform to current government guidelines.

Then, a freelance computer programmer/systems analyst who was assigned to help improve the software and reporting system came forward with a complaint. She claimed she was being pressured to change and sanitize environmental data to bring it into compliance. Under the circumstances, this didn’t sit well with management and the programmer/analyst had her contract summarily terminated. When Phil complained about this retaliation, Lewie threatened to terminate him, too.

Later, a supervisor directed one of the contract programmers to “hard code” a troublesome stream of environmental data to reduce the apparent variability and stabilize the running average value just below the point at which the government would take an interest. When Phil became aware of it, he brought his objection to Lewie. At this meeting, Lewie expressed his frustration about a contract employee who had the gall to tell Acme how it should run its operations. But, Lewie was more upset by the fact that the contractor documented the entire event and that Phil was siding with the contractor.

Phil filed a complaint with Acme’s ombudsman. Because Lewie had already threatened him with termination if he didn’t keep quiet and quit the complaining, Phil also reported Lewie’s behavior to his boss, the vice president of operations.

A few days later, Cara Lainah from the HR department contacted Phil about his complaints. At their informal meeting, Phil explained in simple language what was going on, but it was clear that Cara didn’t grasp the seriousness of what was being said. Phil argued that the environmental department should return to the centralized structure that was in place when he was hired. Cara suggested having another meeting that included Lewie for the purpose of clarifying expectations on both sides.

At that meeting, Cara handed Phil a document titled “Performance Improvement Plan.” Lewie said it lists what Acme wants Phil to do and that Phil had no choice about having 60 days to conform to these expectations. Cara announced there would be a meeting every two weeks at which Phil would document his progress in meeting these expectations.

A month later, Cara sent Phil an e-mail saying that the next progress meeting would be Phil’s performance review. As expected, Lewie’s comments were predominately negative, but the review document contained no ratings at all and Phil wasn’t allowed to add his comments or responses to the review form. Two days later, Cara and Lewie informed Phil that he was being terminated. That afternoon, Lewie issued a company-wide e-mail saying that Phil took a position outside the Acme organization and that he was no longer employed here.

How could this situation have been avoided? Are these scenarios more likely to occur with a centralized or decentralized organizational structure? Is there some way to neutralize the threat that a whistleblower might represent? Do whistleblowers have any real protection from retaliation? Is it possible for any organizational structure to embrace the sound of the whistle? How can Acme get away with issuing an e-mail that contains false information about Phil’s reason for no longer being with the company and a new job as well?

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