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Virtual Whistle-blowing: Employees Bypass Internal Channels to Expose Wrongdoing
YouTube, blogs, social networks are popular outlets for reporting misconduct

By Dana Wilkie   7/16/2013
 
A Golden Corral buffet chef’s embarrassing video—showing raw burgers prepped for the grill and stored next to an outside dumpster—went viral last week, raising this question: How do companies convince employees to use internal reporting channels instead of the Internet to expose unethical company practices?

Brandon Huber, an employee at one of the discount buffet chain’s Florida restaurants, posted a YouTube video of raw burger patties and ribs on trays, surrounded with flies. Huber says in the video that Golden Corral managers hid the food in an unsanitary location during health inspections.

“This is what my company likes to do to get ready for inspection,” Huber says in the video, which was posted to YouTube July 1, 2013, and went viral after it was posted to Reddit on July 7, 2013, according to abcactionnews.com.

News stories about the video reported that the meat was to be served to customers. A Golden Corral tweet acknowledged that the food was by the dumpster but insisted that the food was destroyed—not served to customers—and that a manager was fired “for failing to follow approved food handling procedures.”

Huber’s posting was a classic example of online whistle-blowing—where workers share illegal or unethical company practices using websites, blogs and social media.

“With the advent of YouTube, blogs, social networking and whistle-blower websites such as WikiLeaks, the paradigm of whistle-blowing is changing,” said David Yamada, a professor at Boston’s Suffolk University Law School and author of a blog about the workplace. “The new paradigm for ‘virtual whistle-blowing’ is increasingly online, networked and anonymous.”

Ideally, employees would report illegal or unethical activity to their managers or HR departments. When they choose to report such activity virtually, the result is not only public embarrassment and hasty damage control but also a potentially compromised investigation into workplace wrongdoing.

“In this [Golden Corral] case, the restaurant may clean up its act and there may be some change,” said Stephen M. Kohn, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Whistleblowers Center, a nonprofit that supports employees’ disclosure of waste, fraud and abuse. “But if [Huber] had gone to a health inspector, the inspector might have staged an inspection” and perhaps uncovered other wrongdoing that the company should know about, he said.

According to abcactionnews.com, the YouTube user "Ben Jammin," whose channel is hosting the video, claimed that Huber tried to file a complaint with management and to notify the Volusia County Health Department about the unsanitary practices, but that he got nowhere. 

“People turn to social networks for a lot of reasons, and in the whistle-blower’s case they may feel as if they need someone to simply hear their frustrations,” said digital communications expert Aliah D. Wright, an online editor/manager at the Society for Human Resource Management and author of A Necessary Evil: Managing Employee Activity on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn … and the Hundreds of Other Social Media Sites (SHRM, 2013). “This is a great opportunity for HR to step in and say, ‘Hey, my door is always open if you need someone to listen to you.’ ”

When employees turn to social media to expose misconduct after internal reporting produces no resolution—as may have happened in Huber’s case, according to abcactionnews.com—it may not be too late to restore employees’ trust in the process.

“First, there must be no retaliation,” Kohn said. “If there’s any hint that supervisors hammered the employee [whistle-blower], the company must take action. Second, the disclosure must be thoroughly investigated. Third, if it turns out the employee was correct, there must be consequences—the misconduct should be fixed, and there should be official recognition that the employee did the right thing.”

Kohn said some HR departments are incorporating managers’ handling of whistle-blowing complaints into performance reviews to encourage internal reports of illegal or unethical practices.

“Make it a good thing,” he said. “When you evaluate supervisors and managers, evaluate how many employee reports came in. Of those that came in, how many were investigated” and how many allegations were found to be true? “Evaluating managers on how they deal with worker concerns and giving them high ratings for handling the concerns effectively will change the culture.”

Despite whistle-blower protection laws, Kohn warned that it remains unclear whether whistle-blowing through social media is a protected activity for which the whistle-blower can’t be fired. “There are almost no cases on it,” he said. “People are protected if they go, say, to their congressman, but publishing something on Facebook is a gray area. That will have to be decided on a state-by-state basis.”

Yamada acknowledged that “this is a murky area under current employment laws for workers and their employers alike.

“Those who contemplate engaging in some type of virtual whistle-blowing should not blithely assume that their identities cannot be discovered or that the law protects them from retaliation,” he said.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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