Latest News 2017 April How Whistleblowers Keep the Globe Safe

How Whistleblowers Keep the Globe Safe

In an economy that's gone global in the last 50 years, there's never been a greater connection between foreign governments and the everyday American consumer. The rules and regulations of foreign manufacturers affect our safety and our way of life—from lead paint in children's toys to faulty software on Japanese-made vehicles.

One of the surprising intersections of business, law, and technology involves the practice of whistleblowing. Whistleblowing is the colloquial term for when a person reports on his own company or industry to the government, specifically by publicizing wrongdoing. American whistleblowers have certain protections under the law, and under the right circumstances, whistleblowers can be seen as folk heroes.

Whistleblowing ensures that businesses are able to be held accountable for their deception—either from the government or from consumers. When a dangerous product or medication hits the market and leaves thousands at risk, it's whistleblowers who can help identify the danger before people are hurt. It's a vital part of keeping consumers safe and corporations honest.

Sometimes, however, it's ruined the lives of the whistleblowers.

South Korea's Newest Hero

Mr. Kim Gwang-ho was a 25-year senior employee at Hyundai, one of South Korea's most successful companies. When he discovered that a dangerous defect in Hyundai vehicles was being covered up, he released documents to South Korean and U.S. officials revealing the defect—and the cover-up. The South Korean government then forced Hyundai to recall 240,000 vehicles on top of a 1 million-vehicle recall that was initiated voluntarily last year.

Mr. Kim was immediately fired, but has since argued for his job back. However, he knows things won't be the same. There's no law protecting whistleblowers from retaliation in South Korea—and even if there were, the cultural beliefs surrounding whistleblowing are just as costly. Hyundai, for their part, has insisted that they were working on the defect internally and Mr. Kim had no reason to release the documents. Mr. Kim, however, believed there was a pattern of dishonesty at work.

Whistleblowing Is Harder in South Korea

What makes whistleblowing work is a culture that recognizes its value—or at the very least, a legal system that protects it. South Korea has no such culture and no such laws. Whistleblowers are considered traitors to their colleagues and their employers, and many of them are ostracized by neighbors and prospective employees for the rest of their life.

As a result, choosing to whistle-blow is essentially a decision to live life as an outcast, to suffer financial hardship for doing the right thing. There's no government reward and no social capital won from warning the public. It's necessary, and the public benefits (as seen in the recall), but the individual pays the price for it. One study of 42 whistleblowers in South Korea found that over half of them had been fired for revealing corruption in their organization.

Why Whistleblowers Are Hated

Domestic critics of South Korea's business culture believe that the issue comes from military influence on citizen life. The history of the nation's military rule and mandatory military service for all men created the expectation of a strict command structure—one that repeats itself in every facet of business, law, and commerce. Mr. Kim agrees.

"If someone higher ranked than you says you do it, you do it, no questions asked," he said. "If you talk back to a boss frankly, you get fired."

Unchanging hierarchy and deference to superiors creates a system where those on top cannot be questioned by those below them. It might work for a military organization—but in a world that demands innovation and constant improvement, silencing the voices of the lower ranks is detrimental to the whole business. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers discusses how deferential language and culture could lead directly to airplane crash rates.

In other words, encouraging people to hold their superiors accountable is not just an American cultural quirk—it's an issue that helps create safer environments for people worldwide.

Critics believe that Mr. Kim's case—which has been highly publicized—will finally encourage lawmakers to create laws to validate and encourage whistleblowing. If not, advocates fear that it will be a long time before someone else chooses to sacrifice him or herself for the sake of public good.

Categories: Whistleblowing