“Hey, I am trying to tell you there is a problem…”
Have you ever been in the position of relating bad news to someone in the workplace—maybe it was about a product that does not deliver on its promises, unsanitary or unsafe conditions, or a co-worker who is way beyond bending the rules in order to get ahead? Depending on when this happened, you may have been treated more like the “bad news” itself, rather than just the deliverer of bad news.
Not that many years ago reporting ethics or compliance problems could be a risky proposition and a positive outcome for the person doing the reporting was anything but guaranteed. Today many organizations have improved systems for reporting and protecting workers who bring problems to light but even so that does not always translate into a seamless process. Take a case taken from the headlines this past month…
“Attorneys representing the Health and Human Services Department, states and a whistle-blower announced on October 26 that pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline will plead guilty to selling faulty drugs to Medicare and Medicaid and pay $750million in penalties.” (GlaxoSmithKline agrees to pay $750 million penalty for fraud, November 8, 2010 Doug Trapp, amednews .com)
Apparently whistle-blower Cheryl Eckard, who will receive nearly a $96 million piece of the settlement pie, tried utilizing the system that was in place for reporting problems with little success. According to reports she was fired in 2003 and had “repeatedly” reported problems to her “superiors and the compliance department about the Cidra, Puerto Rico plant.” She said she was ignored, even when she threatened to go to the Food and Drug Administration. She ended up reporting the problems to the FDA. One statement particularly that caught my attention… “This is not something I ever wanted to do, but because of patient safety issues, it was necessary.” (GlaxoSmithKline settles bad drug case for $750 M, USA Today 10-26, 2010, Denise Lavoie, Associated Press)
As useful as fines and penalties are in driving home the importance of integrity and high road behavior, and the amounts involved were certainly attention grabbing– I think it is a shame that things ever went that far. In an industry where patient safety seems mighty important, her actions seem in line with expectations the public has about quality regarding the drugs upon which we rely. I think Cheryl Eckard serves as a reminder that whistle-blowers are not the problem.
If this were addressed by the organization early on, utilizing the system in place, wouldn’t this have had a less damaging result for the corporation? There is no guarantee, even with self-reporting, that even if this were handled “by the book” that there would still not have been a financial hit and a big headache for all involved. But I can’t imagine that the damage would have been anywhere equal to this.
Considering the risks involved, I think a prudent approach for business is not to react in a knee-jerk fashion to bad news, but rather carefully consider whether apparent “bad news” could actually be “good news.” The kind of good news that helps to avoid costly litigation, keeps the brand strong, the reputation untarnished, and at the same time challenges leaders to examine if the way business is conducted is actually in line with the standards that they profess.
As individuals, we also can be guilty of a knee jerk response to bad news. If we are as interested in continuous improvement as we like to think we are, it might also be a worthwhile practice for all of us to examine how we react when bad news lands on our doorstep as well.