Interview With a Whistleblower
World Whistleblower Day is June 23, and in recognition of all the courageous individuals who blow the whistle on bad behavior, I recently interviewed Amy Block Joy, Ph.D., author of Whistleblower, on her own experience speaking up against wrongdoing.
For some background, here's the summary of her book:
Amy Joy—scientist, educator, and program administrator—was happy and comfortable conducting research while administering a $14 million program for poor families [at a California university]. Certainly, nothing she had previously experienced prepared her for the resistance, collusion, and retaliation she encountered when she discovered embezzlement at the university where she worked for more than 30 years.
Let's get started.
1. How did you discover program funds were being misappropriated?
My discovery of the fraud began when I found a large increase in a budget spreadsheet that my employee had prepared. She added $150,000 for my boss and then accidentally gave me a copy of it. When I questioned her about the additional money, she claimed it was a math error and would fix it. As I dove deeper into the accounts she was managing, I discovered a $1,500 purchase order that had all the hallmarks of embezzlement (vague description, no separation of duties in reviews/approvals, odd handwritten note on the PO, etc.). When I confronted her and my boss during a meeting, she confessed.
After I discovered that my employee was submitting fake travel documents to get reimbursements, my boss became angry at me. Reminding me that he was my supervisor, I was warned to keep quiet. When I realized he had approved her fake travel, I knew I had to take action right away. This was when I decided to blow the whistle.
2. What went through your mind as you decided whether to blow the whistle?
Fear. Anxiety. Worry about my future. Dread—the feeling of impending doom.
Although I was on the faculty for almost 30 years, I was never trained in "reporting wrongdoing." I had no idea what to do. The policy was clear: "Report any allegations of misconduct to your supervisor." It didn't say what to do if your supervisor refused to act. It certainly didn't tell you what to do if your boss was involved in the criminal activity or actively engaged in covering it up.
My boss was protecting my employee. When I blew the whistle, I only knew that he approved her travel. I didn't know this was part of a collusion scheme. While he was approving fictitious travel reimbursements for her, she was purchasing expensive equipment for him. Because both of them had been able to bypass me, I was unable to detect their collusive behavior.
3. How did you expect the issue to be handled?
I thought my boss would report my allegations up the chain of command. He did not. Instead, he tormented me.
- He tried to make me feel guilty: "I thought she was your friend?"
- He tried to keep me quiet: "Do not tell anyone about your allegations. This is my job, not yours."
- He threatened me: "I have received many complaints about you."
- He tried to coax me into forgetting about it: "You are too strict and naive. This happens all the time at the university. It's no big deal."
Of course, his deflection was done to keep me unbalanced and frightened so that I wouldn't report the misuse. When I realized he wasn't going to report the misuse, I did it myself.* I became a whistleblower.
*Editor’s note: Amy reported the misuse to her boss, his boss, the college dean, executive dean and associate dean, the director of human resources, and the chancellor’s office.
4. I understand your boss did not support you and many friends turned on you. Tell us about that.
After I reported the wrongdoing, there was an organized smear campaign to discredit me. Twenty-one of my colleagues and friends created a petition to remove me from my position. The petition contained false accusations that I was involved in the wrongdoing. Sadly, no one stood up for me.
After I presented sufficient evidence that the criminal activity was committed by my employee in collusion with my boss, I thought my friends would return. They did not. After a year-long investigation, I was cleared by the university. The allegations against me were unsubstantiated. Unfortunately, none of my friends cared about the truth.
Betrayed by the mob of former friends, I trusted no one. My colleagues wanted to continue to receive money from my program funds and thought getting rid of me would be in their best interest.
Being a whistleblower is forever. The emotional toll is crushing. Although I have recovered, it wasn't an easy journey. I had to work hard to push myself forward. I had to forget about my past career, friendships, and reputation. The healing began when I started over.
5. Knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently?
At the time, the policy stated that I was to report "allegations of misconduct" to my supervisor. The policy didn't allow for reporting to any other entity. If I had known my campus had a compliance office, I would have gone directly to them. It was several months after I reported the misuse that I found the campus Internal Auditing office. This was where everything changed for the better. The campus compliance staff treated me fairly and with respect. My feeling of trust returned because I felt safe.
What I would have done differently was to report my allegations directly to the compliance office. This would have resulted in my fraud case being taken seriously and investigated promptly. After I was interviewed by the internal auditors, I figured out that my boss (and his boss) were both involved. Suddenly their attempts to keep me quiet made sense.
Additionally, I would have reported other criminal issues directly to the police: My office had been broken into and ransacked; I had been physically assaulted (pushed in the hallway and in my office); I had received threats of violence and harassment.
6. What advice do you have for compliance teams and leaders who encourage people to speak up?
People are afraid to speak up. They expect it will get them fired and their career and livelihood will be destroyed. As I found out, this is exactly what happens. The only way to reduce the risk of losing your job and career is to create a way to report allegations confidentially. The hotline, although not perfect, is one way to start the communication between the organization and reporter.
Having a "protection from retaliation policy" sounds like a good idea; however, in reality, "policy" isn't enforceable. In my case, "protection" took six months—I wasn’t protected from retaliation until an investigation from an external law firm substantiated retaliation.
I think many don’t want to speak out because the result is time-consuming and risky. It can take many years for the investigative process to be completed. I didn't foresee the consequences of my reporting. I now know that the organization doesn't want the media attention. In my case, I do feel it was handled well and I did survive. But is the resulting trauma worth it?
Being a whistleblower isn't a great career move. I do sleep better at night because I did what I felt was the right thing to do. Although my whistleblower experience wasn't perfect, it was, I believe, good enough. As a whistleblower, I did the best job that I could. I am satisfied with the result. In fact, I now feel more confident, emotionally strong, and happier because of it.
To encourage people to speak up, I recommend that compliance teams work to improve institutional integrity by preventing retaliation. Having a policy against retaliation is not enough. Retaliation is predictable, costly, and reduces employee morale and productivity. Improving the organization's ethical culture is a significant safeguard to protect employees from retaliation.
Thank you, Amy, for sharing your experiences with us.
To all the compliance pros reading this: We hope that Amy’s story inspires and encourages you to continue supporting the folks at your company who seek to do the right thing.
Finally, if you'd like to support Amy by spreading the word about Whistleblower and her other books, you can learn more on Amy’s site.