A Case Study on How Bullies Deflect by Destroying Whistleblowers

The Queen of Spin is at it again. After a hiatus where we were spared from listening to Kellyanne Conway spread misinformation all over the daily news cycle, she recently sparred with CNN’s Chris Cuomo in full exhibition of bullying as she masterfully manipulated, distorted and denied the truth. There’s no denying how perfectly she inhabits the role of Trump surrogate.

It’s hard not to imagine Conway as the adult version of the flawlessly blond, treacherous and manipulative bully Regina George in the 2004 movie Mean Girls. In the movie, Regina attacks her rival, Cady (played by Lindsay Lohan), by spreading the high school equivalent of misinformation. Until Regina’s final comeuppance (which requires being hit by a bus—what a metaphor!) she has absolutely no scruples about doing whatever it takes to get her way.

I have done extensive research on bullies and Conway (and her colleague Sarah Huckabee Sanders) are textbook examples of how bullies operate. Most appalling is their defense of outright lies and the assumption that people really are that gullible. Even more disturbing is the message that this sends to youth—that it is OK to lie to get your way. I watch with amazement as the Trumpniks use bullying tactics right out of the Steve Bannon playbook and try to turn victims into villains by recasting whistleblowers as leakers. (Something I discuss in detail in the chapter on whistleblowers in my book, From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire). This is so typical of how bullies operate, which is perfectly captured in yesterday’s piece by Joshua Green in New York Magazine, which crystallizes Bannon’s strategy on his bully boss’s behalf perfectly: “Attack, Attack, Attack.”

I wonder if Conway and company have considered the fact these mendacities have gone beyond bullying, beyond lying and are making them complicit in something that’s starting to look very much like treason.

Photo credit: CNN

Why Being a Revolutionist is Critical Now

The image may forever be seared into the collective consciousness—Republican members of the House boarding buses to the White House to have a beer to celebrate passage of the American Health Care Act of 2017. Never mind that the AHCA has an enormous list of pre-existing conditions that unconscionably includes cesarean section and PTSD brought on by sexual assault, or that it makes it possible to charge people over 50 more than five times the rate of younger people, or that it included an exemption for Congress. And ignore that in their zeal to defeat the national healthcare safety net created by an African-American president, many Republicans admitted to never having read the thing or that they refused to wait for the cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. Just remember this: This may be the moment when the average American becomes a revolutionist.

As someone who has been a revolutionist for psychologically healthy, safe and fair workplaces for almost a decade, it gives me hope to see Americans fired up. It’s this energy that I hope to direct to employment issues, which differ from your rights as a citizen in an important way—the freedom of expression that you are guaranteed under the Constitution does NOT apply to the workplace.  This is why keeping an eye on workplace issues is extremely important—the man currently in the White House wants to run the government like one of his workplaces.

Examples of how employees lack rights abound. Donald Trump’s friends at Fox News continue to be in the headlines with new lawsuits and federal investigations due to sexual harassment and gender discrimination allegations. Most of the women who were harassed had no recourse at work. One of the most pernicious aspects of the culture at Fox News is the practice of human resource departments to encourage employees to come forward then use that information to facilitate retaliation. As I discuss in From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire, this is far from unusual. I would even argue it’s the norm; in toxic workplaces human resource departments are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Far too often they suffer from what I call “Sean Spicer Syndrome”—zero credibility, zero courage.

One of the most egregious examples of employees lacking rights at work come from Wells Fargo. I’ve written a lot about the bank’s improprieties and I’m not fooled by the assurance of its new CEO, Timothy J. Sloan, that retaliation against whistleblowers won’t be tolerated. Or, according to a recent New York Times article, that it’s “critically important” that all employees feel safe at Wells Fargo. It does nothing for the employees who were fired for reporting the bank’s abuses and then show up only as a footnote in a 110-page report by an outside law firm. In order for there to have been abuse at the levels that took place and the whistleblowers silenced, the exploitation by Wells Fargo had to be deep and systemic.

That is why I take being a revolutionist so seriously and you should, too. Fighting on against depressing odds is difficult, but we don’t have the luxury of sitting back. Trump has tried to silence the press, boost religious extremists and roll back protections for the LGBT community, in addition to that outrageous bill that masquerades as health-care reform. But it’s not over. Not only does the AHCA still need to pass in the Senate, but 2018 midterm elections are coming up quickly. Use your anger to fuel your resolve to resist. Record donations yesterday poured into sites that will fund Democratic candidates in 2018. There are marches planned, including the June 11 Equality March for Unity and Pride in Washington, DC. I predict we will see record crowds for Pride around the world this year. As my 98-year-old mother, a veteran of the Dutch underground during World War II told me, “you don’t want to feel as you grow older that you should have done more.” Take action now.

Photo credit: CSPAN






Instead of Blaming the Victim; Practical Advice for Whistleblowers

I’m often appalled at the bad advice the media gives to people who are being bullied in the workplace. The latest example comes from the Globe and Mail’s Rob Magazine on Corporate Governess where a reader asked what to do about senior executives who were up to something unethical and possibly illegal. The headline? “Why you probably shouldn’t snitch on your employer.”

After pointing out that Canada has no whistleblower protection laws like the U.S., the magazine’s writer put the onus on the reader. After pointing out that almost any course of action could lead to unemployment, it urged him to keep it anonymous and do his own investigation first.

Suggesting that it should all be up to the employee is absurd. Here is the advice I share in my book, From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire.

1.     Reach out to your company’s external auditor to see if you will be protected if you report wrongdoing.

2.     If it’s safe to do so, make your report to the company’s external auditor.

3.     Keep your report free from emotional response and state just the facts. Don’t embellish, assess or be judgmental.

4.     Don’t become the investigator. The investigation is the responsibility of the organization.

5.     Know the laws where you work. Different states have different protections for whistleblowers and some have none at all.

Photo credit: BIGSTOCK 

Why So Few People Report Abuse

When asked about the sexual harassment controversy at Fox News, one of the frequent refrains the company made was that no one had ever made a complaint. Perhaps the story by Chad Bray in today’s New York Times might shed some light on why people are so reluctant to come forward. The CEO of Barclays, James E. Staley, is under investigation for trying to learn the identity of a whistleblower.

The bank had been reeling from employee misconduct and determined to restructure and resolve litigation. Staley’s predecessor, Antony Jenkins, had done a lot to reshape the corporate culture but was driven out by the directors who no longer believed he could improve returns to shareholders. Instead they brought in Staley. Now it’s been revealed that Staley tried to ascertain the identity of the anonymous whistleblower whose letters seemed to implicate Staley in some sort of cover up. When the bank discovered Staley’s actions, which included seeking the assistance of a U.S. law enforcement team, no action was taken but Staley apologized. Today it was announced that Staley would be formally reprimanded and that he would be subjected to a “very significant compensation adjustment.”

No wonder no one wants to risk their career and safety to report misconduct. Staley received little more than a slap on the wrist and some short-term embarrassment. Whistleblowers on the other hand are often subjected to ongoing harassment and stalled, or even destroyed, careers.

In her excellent column, “The Upshot,” Claire Cain Miller makes the same point when she discusses why women just don’t report sexual harassment:

“Many victims, who are most often women, fear they will face disbelief, inaction, blame or societal and professional retaliation. That could be hostility from supervisors, a bad reference to future employers or the loss of job opportunities. Their fears are grounded in reality, researchers have concluded. In one study of public-sector employees, two-thirds of workers who had complained about mistreatment described some form of retaliation in a follow-up survey.”

If you feared a witch hunt and retaliation, would you report your supervisor? How about if his supervisor is known as an even worse offender? Miller’s research showed that official harassment policies often wind up hurting women because they’re used to prove to the courts that they did what they could, rather than protect female employees.

So what can be done? Perhaps the host of the HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has the right idea. His team created an edgy public service announcement to help a certain resident of Pennsylvania Avenue understand why it’s not a good idea to endorse the behavior of Bill O’Reilly. They tried to buy advertising airtime during The O’Reilly Factor, but oddly enough there were no takers in spite of a lack of advertising. Like bullies everywhere, they’re good at dishing out abuse, but not so strong when it comes to handling the resulting ridicule.

Photo credit: BIGSTOCK

Human Resources: A Dismal Profession?

In all the discussion about Wells Fargo in the wake of their sham accounts scandal, there’s been no real mention of who or what was the direct architect of their corporate culture. In my opinion, human resources should be responsible for the integrity of an organization’s culture just as much as the CFO might be responsible for the integrity of that organization’s numbers. I’ve worked in HR – early in my career, I was an HR professional, and throughout my career, I’ve worked with HR roles within my portfolio of responsibilities – and I think it’s safe to say that HR needs to be held accountable for the cultural makeup of a company. They’re the team that develops incentive programs like the ones that allowed 5,300 employees at Wells Fargo to lose their jobs for following their culture’s status quo. They’re the team responsible for ethics training, handling whistleblowers, and helping employees deal with the strain of impossible sales quotas. In my new book (out in January) and in previous blog posts, I’ve compared workplace cultures to ticking time bombs, which go off when a company’s leadership neglects the reality of a workplace structured for scandal. When a culture is a ticking time bomb, HR is almost always part of that problem, either in the form of discouraging whistleblowers, creating programs that don’t truly address interpersonal conflicts associated with sales goals, or creating a veneer of caring about customers and employees that’s entirely false. I suspect much of this went on at Wells Fargo – just look at the HR gobbledygook on their website (which hasn’t been updated since 2015) for evidence of this. However, as much as HR can be part of the problem with workplace culture, they can also be part of the solutions to fix those problems – if only HR professionals had the courage and honesty to stand up, acknowledge cultural issues, and inform leadership in order to make actionable changes needed to avoid disgraces that harm customers as much as they harm the organization’s reputation. 

Photo: Getty Images via Wall Street Journal 

Being Wells-Fargoed Should Keep Top Executives and Boards of Directors Up at Night

The news broke this morning that Wells Fargo’s board has decided to revoke compensation valued at $41 million from the company’s CEO, John Stumpf, in relation to the sham customer accounts created by employees to fluff sales numbers. Additionally, Wells Fargo’s former head of the community banking division that is the source of the scandal, Carrie Tolstedt, has also been financially penalized. I was surprised to hear that these two were being reprimanded for the scandal by Wells Fargo – but then, it occurred to me just how similar this was to the Volkswagen scandal. As I’ve written about before in Directors & Boards Magazine, both companies initially found that a swath of employees were to blame, before moving up the chain to management-level employees who were turned out only after it became increasingly clear to the public just who was to blame for their respective breaches with the public trust. In short, Wells Fargo is scrambling, just the way VW did when the emissions scandal broke.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – CEOs need to be aware of what is going on in their businesses. Transparency is the name of the game here – not just with handling scandals in the public eye, but in managing employees in every sector of business. Firing scapegoated lower-level employees and revoking the huge payouts to executives is fundamentally a band-aid approach to fixing the problems that lead to scandals. Firstly, Tolstedt should not have been allowed to retire peacefully with a few penalties imposed on her severance package – Wells Fargo should have made a point of firing her. Additionally, if it is revealed that Stumpf was fully aware of the sham accounts and covered up for them, he should also be dismissed publically. However, before either of those two steps could be taken, the most important course of action for Wells Fargo (and any similarly scandalized corporation) is to conduce a full, comprehensive and objective investigation into the root causes of the wrongdoing that occurred. Having a complete picture is essential to actually curing the problems present in any organization – and it makes a more convincing argument to the public whose trust those organizations are trying to regain.


At the end of the day, Wells Fargo’s behavior is yet another stain on the already-tainted US banking industry. The pervasive nature of short-term goal oriented cultures will almost always result in similar scandals that further erode the public’s trust in those institutions they have no choice but to invest in. It’ll be a long time before those 5,300 employees let go for their “rogue” behavior will be able to get a job again, just like it will be a long time before the employees let go for whistleblowing will feel comfortable standing up for their principles again. Depending on how far this particular scandal goes, perhaps the entire board will need to be replaced before anyone is willing to give Wells Fargo their money again. 

Image: Stumpf on Capitol Hill last week. Image Credit: Gabriella Demczuk for NYT

Whistleblower Retaliation at the TSA

Heather Callahan Chuck, one of the exonerated TSA officers, photographed by Kent Nishimura for NYT.

Heather Callahan Chuck, one of the exonerated TSA officers, photographed by Kent Nishimura for NYT.

It seems to be a norm that whistleblowers are targeted by those they seek to expose. However, these specific cases are particularly unsettling. In an age where airport security is of the utmost importance, learning that the TSA punishes whistleblowers for uncovering security flaws or fund mismanagement is very discouraging. Many of the whistleblowers featured in this article are decorated military veterans, and they often have to spend thousands of dollars trying to win their Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints against their supervisors. Management wants to punish employees with impunity, when they should be embracing criticism for the safety of us all. Read the full story at The New York Times.

Whistleblower Retaliation at Korn Ferry

Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn/Ferry -  Photo by Jennifer Weiss for WSJ

Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn/Ferry - Photo by Jennifer Weiss for WSJ

I can relate to what Robert Damon, formerly of Korn/Ferry, is going through. He was a high-level executive who was fired for whistleblowing against Korn/Ferry’s Chief Executive, Gary Burnison, who was allegedly mistreating several female colleagues. This parallels what I went through when I blew the whistle on a senior executive in a former position I held, because I went through some of the same experiences. Additionally, Mr. Damon was smeared by Korn/Ferry in an attempt to discredit him, which is typical tactic used against whistleblowers who sue for wrongful termination – something I had to fight through for 18 months in my past. While the allegations against Mr. Burnison have not been proven in court, but my sources in the organization have expressed total dismay with what has gone on and is still going on within the company. Read more on the case and the settlement at The Wall Street Journal.