Blowing the Whistle Is Just the Beginning of the Whistleblower Journey

This article originally appeared on Forbes and was republished with permission from Kelly Richmond Pope

I’ve been studying fraud and white collar-crime for over 20 years.  Never would I think that I’d be accused of making a fraudulent claim against a company that had wronged me. And yet, I’ve recently been accused of exactly that.

Being falsely accused of lying has given me new insight. After years of studying and teaching ethical decision making, I can now empathize with the whistle-blower’s dilemma in a far more intimate way. Fraud—preventing it—is my life’s work. But when it came to an indictment against my personal integrity none of my background mattered to the accuser.

Let me explain.

Like many of the whistle-blowers I’ve studied and met, I did everything right.

A crime was committed (in my case, movers working for a large moving company ransacked my drawers, found my hidden wedding bands, and stole them, during my move). I discovered the theft right after the movers left my house and immediately reported the crime to the police, offering a minute by minute account of what had happened. Next, I contacted the president of the company via LinkedIn and shared my complaint, then I waited and waited…and waited for a resolution. During that wait time, I never thought that the moving company would turn the tables on me to the point where I now find myself scared to speak about my story because the company has threatened to seek legal action…against me.

Like whistle-blowers everywhere, I thought I would be protected. The truth will set you free, right? Think again.

It was my word against the movers’. The moving company sided with their employees and then attacked my credibility by accusing me of lying. I was shocked.

Knowing what I know about how retaliation works, perhaps the fact that I’d now been twice victimized—once by the violation, and again by the accusation leveled against my personal integrity—should not have surprised me so. But it did. If I—a Ph.D. in accounting, a scholar and teacher of ethical decision making who has published books and articles about fraud, made a documentary about fraud (All the Queen's Horses), and passed the CFE (certified fraud exam)—if I could be so cavalierly accused of making a fraudulent claim, then how might the rest of us hope to be taken seriously and be deemed credible when coming up against a company intent on protecting itself from being exposed?

In sharing this experience, I feel like a whistle-blower. I want to warn others about this moving company, however if I speak out, using the company’s name, I could now face legal retaliation from them and I am not financially prepared to fight.

Read More: It’s Time to Reconsider the Term “Whistleblower”

As I began thinking about what I could do to defend my name, I started to think about my research and all of the whistle-blower interviews I’ve done over the years. I sympathized with them all over again.

I thought about these stories because I was starting to truly understand the whistle-blower’s fear from within. Did I have the stamina to fight like they all had?

I thought about these stories because I was starting to truly understand the whistle-blower’s fear from within. Did I have the stamina to fight like they all had? Lest you think I am blowing this out of proportion, I realize that the theft of my rings is not as serious an allegation as some of the claims that other whistle-blowers allege. Nevertheless, the defense of my personal integrity—like theirs—is worth the fight.

I knew I could do something outside of hiring a lawyer to defend my good name: I decided to take a polygraph test. I’d seen this over and over on Law and Order episodes, but now it was my turn to sit in the hot seat to prove my name. I knew I wasn’t lying, but when the moving company’s lawyer used the language defamation per se, I knew (thanks to the CFE prep course) that the only thing that nullified defamation per se is truth. In the event that this moving company wanted to sue me for defamation per se, I would have some protection if I sat for this test.

So I employed the services of a retired FBI agent and devoted over two hours to sitting for a polygraph.

As the polygrapher was placing the components around my body to monitor my heart rate, sweat glands and pulse, I was thinking “…what a cool experience this could be to share with my students”--but then I started thinking about what if my emotions get the best of me and I fail the test. Only time would tell.

Read More: The New Voice of the Whistleblower

Questions like, ‘have you ever stolen anything’, ‘did you make a fraudulent claim about those rings’ and a series of others were spoken at me. Polygraph answers are either yes or no, so you must be honest giving your response. Are you 43 years old. Yes. Have you ever stolen something…Yes (a piece of gum from my mom’s purse when I was 8, my mom’s car to visit a friend when I was 17…you get the point.) Polygraph responses can be tricky, but the truth will set you free, remember?

As the second hour approached I became slightly annoyed. Why did I feel the need for this? Oh yes; I needed to clear my name. My untarnished record as an ethical citizen and my reputation were at stake. While we live in a moment when the spoken word (or tweet) can become an alternative fact, I wasn’t willing to let my life’s work get tarnished by a false accusation from a moving company.  I knew I had to do this. The polygraph was a must.

After two hours, the test was complete. I exited the building and breathed a sigh of relief that this was over.

For many who have something to say but fear retaliation if they choose to come forward, the victimization is never over.

For many who have something to say but fear retaliation if they choose to come forward, the victimization is never over. What do you really do when your truth is questioned? When you are accused of something—and anyone, in this day and age, can accuse you of anything—the responsibility is placed on you to fight back. But not everyone can.

As for the loss of wedding bands that were selfishly stolen from me, probably never to be returned or replaced by the moving company, I feel sad. But what I feel sadder about still is the way a legal maneuver was used to silence a would-be whistle-blower.

But what this situation has taught me is that anyone’s credibility can be questioned at any time

You may be wondering, by the way, about the results from my polygraph test. Was I lying?  Hell No! I passed the polygraph with flying colors. I did not issue a false claim against that thief-of-a-moving company. But what this situation has taught me is that anyone’s credibility can be questioned at any time. Even a highly credible fraud professor’s. And honestly, you don’t have many options to protect yourself. In this case, I am lucky. The truth has set me free.

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Remembering W. Michael Hoffman

All of us who work in ethics and compliance are indebted to Dr. Hoffman for his vision in creating many of the founding institutions of the ethics and compliance movement and for setting a personal example of tireless commitment to serving others.

Among Dr. Hoffman’s professional accomplishments are his founding of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University in 1976. In that same year, he organized the first National Conference on Business Ethics bringing together academics, business executives and government leaders. In 1992 he founded the Ethics Officer Association (EOA), the first cross-industry group to help ethics officers share best practices. As the first Executive Director of the EOA he created training programs for new Ethics Officers. To-date, the programs have helped nearly 1,000 professionals in their new careers. On the academic front, Dr. Hoffman published 15 books, over 100 articles, co-founded and edited business ethics journals and helped create the Society for Business Ethics.

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