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The Accidental Whistleblower

Dear Office-Politics,

I currently work for a small, privately held but entrepreneurial company. I was relocated a year ago from HQ in England to help facilitate the growth of our US operations.

A few months in and our CEO “left” and has been replaced by what I can only describe as someone who is seriously incompetent. I gave her fair play and the chance to settle in; however some of the things she suggests and has instructed me to do could have a serious negative impact on the company. (..think losing $100,000’s) The boss in question only has experience in one aspect of our companies operation. So where necessary I have advised her against some of her bad ideas, and on some occasions “played the game” to ensure that our superiors in London are aware of the problems we are facing. I am not alone in this, and in fact every manager in the company has serious issues with her decision making, most of which have voiced their concerns.

A little while ago I contacted HQ and outlined some of the issues that I have been having – I was instructed to do what I thought was in the best interest of the company, and do what I need to do. This in itself is fraught with problems… in order to do what I need to do, I need to completely disregard my superiors instructions; which to date I had done smoothly. In our company right now we have a bottleneck in the area that the incompetent boss specializes in so I can only think that they are keeping her on to troubleshoot that department.

A few weeks ago I totally snapped and sent a letter to the board of directors outlining my concerns about the quality of decision making from our CEO; backed up with examples, which I am sure they would have agreed with me on. Their response was that they are visiting our office in two weeks and they are confident that they can find a solution – I do not think they fully understand the scale of what we have been complaining about. So, I have already voiced my concerns about our CEO, along with other managers; what do you recommend as my strategy when they come to our office in two weeks time?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Accidental Whistleblower

franke james

Dear Accidental Whistleblower,

It sounds like you did not fully anticipate the consequences of sending your concerns to the Board of Directors. However I applaud you — you have the makings of an outstanding executive. Your letter demonstrates an admirable commitment to doing the right things for the company.

Your question to Office-Politics is, “What do you recommend as my strategy when the [Board] comes to our office in two weeks time? But my question is, “How are you going to protect yourself?”

By writing to the Board of Directors you have inadvertently stepped into the role of whistleblower. It’s quite a fascinating chain of events that you’ve unleashed. Let’s step back and recognize the hot potato you’ve handed them. You’ve sent your concerns in writing to them, backed up with examples. Now they need to investigate whether your account is accurate. Some Board members may not believe you and actually want to sweep it under the rug — but they can’t ignore your complaint. Why? You’ve put it in writing, and you’ve sent it to all of them. They have to deal with this hot potato. Otherwise in the event of a financial fiasco, they could be sued for not dealing with the serious issues you’ve raised. It could come back to haunt them. A written complaint is very powerful.

The Board of Directors is a closed circle
From your letter it sounds as though you expected an immediate response from them — and not just a visit. But the Board of Directors are a closed circle. They protect their knowledge, so they cannot reveal to you what their concerns are. Think of them as a one way street. You shared your concerns. They are obviously concerned (or at least reacting) as we can conclude by their actions of arranging a visit. But they can’t and won’t admit to you that they are worried. They need to ‘save face’ so they say, “We are confident we can find a solution”. Why are they so confident? Well, they wield the axe and can terminate this CEO (and anyone else) if they decide that it is warranted.

But perhaps you are right that they don’t grasp the full severity of the situation. I encourage you to quietly keep gathering facts and noting your observations. Sometimes these events pivot on the smallest details (I once was in a battle where the other party told the Better Business Bureau that they had spoken to an official and everything checked out fine. I said, ‘What? I don’t believe that!‘ I then met with that official and discovered that they had not spoken to him, and we uncovered a shocking fact. Their entire case crumbled. We won and did not have to go to court.)

Go over everything with a fine tooth comb
So, go over everything with a fine tooth comb and challenge your own assumptions. You probably will be grilled when they come to town and you want to be thoroughly prepared. Anticipate how this CEO will attack you — that is one of the key ways you can stay a step ahead.

Think of it like a very competitive chess game
Construct different scenarios for how this will play out:

1. If the CEO makes this move, what will your response be?
2. If she does this, what will your best defense be?
3. Are other Managers willing to go on written record supporting your claims?
4. What if the Board rejects your concerns, what will you do?

Now that you’re in the role of whistleblower, you may have to prepare yourself to blow the whistle further up the chain. If the Board doesn’t take action, and you have concrete evidence of incompetence and financial errors, you may need to go to the largest individual company shareholders. Ask yourself if there is a governing body in the industry that could be helpful. Perhaps the media may be helpful? In planning your game strategy, you want to get your Queen, Bishops, Knights, Rooks and even lowly Pawns all positioned perfectly so that no matter which move the CEO makes, you have her checkmated.

A useful tool in deciding the best course of action is to imagine what a newspaper article would say about this fiasco. You want to be on the right side — and show that you have taken every action possible to act in the best interests of the company. It sounds to me like you’re doing a very good job and have been courageous in your actions.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics. Let me know if this helps.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

  1. One Answer to “The Accidental Whistleblower”

  2. Thanks very much for your prompt response. You have given me some food for thought, and read our company quite well. After my letter to the board I started keeping a daily note of goings on so I will continue with that. Good news is that I know how the CEO will attack me… so I can keep ahead of her on that front.

    Thanks for your advice!

    By Letter-writer on Aug 8, 2007

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