Ep. 190: Gordon Graham - The Ethics and Risks of Whistleblowing

Today’s episode travels the bumpy and lonesome road of a whistleblower taking on corrupt leaders inside a public utility. IMA’s Adam Larson is joined by Gordon Graham to discuss his memoir The Intrepid Brotherhood – Public Power, Corruption and Whistleblowing in the Pacific Northwest. Gordon shares insights from his own experience as well as from Aristotle and other philosophers to help people facing ethical dilemmas at work.
Connect with Gordon: www.intrepidbrotherhood.com

Full Episode Transcript: 
Adam: (00:06)
 I'm Adam Larson and welcome to Count Me In, the podcast that explores the world of business from the management accountant's perspective. Today, we are talking to author Gordon Graham about his memoir, the Intrepid Brotherhood: Public Power, Corruption, and Whistleblowing in the Pacific Northwest. This is a really fascinating story. Gordon was a senior technology leader at the public utility who uncovered blatant persistent corruption among executive management at the company. But while others accepted the corruption as an unfortunate fact of life, Gordon fought hard for change, even in the face of fierce retaliation from the executive wing. His decision to fight and ultimately become a whistleblower, provides a riveting example of the lengths people will go to on both sides of an ethical dilemma. Here's my conversation with Gordon Graham.
 
 Adam: (01:01)
 So Gordon, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. I really appreciate you coming on and let me just start by saying, you have just an amazing story that you wrote about in your book, and I hope we'll get to hear a little bit about it today, but one of the biggest items that you talk about is standing up for what is right. And now this can be especially hard when you feel like the weight of an organization or a local government on you and you probably feel very alone. Can you give us your take on standing up for ethical professional treatment at the expense of one's career?
 
 Gordon: (01:32)
 Difficult choice, to say the least. I think one of the reasons I wrote the book was just so people who may be experiencing the same thing or recognize, and same characteristics in their organization can have something to refer to help them try to determine how they can help their organization, maybe get out of that circumstance, how they can help themselves, maybe the people within the span of control that they have, or have responsibility for. They can help them deal with it. It's a very personal choice to decide to actually confront those issues. If you recognize 'em in your organization. And a lot of people are going to choose differently than I did. My circumstances sort of dictated that I needed to personally dedicate myself to trying to help the organization that I had invested so many years in.
 
 Gordon: (02:33)
 I really feel like I didn't have any choice. There was no other decision for me to make. And unfortunately even though I exercised what I think were the right steps, the right maneuvers to try to get people's attention, to build recognition of the problem, I failed at that. I have to admit that I didn't get that done. And in the end it caused me to have to change my employer, my career path a little bit, I had to relocate, a whole bunch of things happened, but that's, you know, I really can't advise anyone on specific approach or steps to take to you know, ultimately deal with that situation if they recognize it in their organization. But hope hopefully the book provides some tools to evaluate how to make that decision.
 
 Adam: (03:29)
 Definitely. I mean, that must have been a very tough decision to make, especially job location and friends I'm sure. And like community, you had to kind of disrupt everything just to make that decision that you made.
 
 Gordon: (03:43)
 That's correct. Yeah. There was a lot of circumstances and factors that weighed into our decision. I say our, because my wife played a huge part in that analysis to say the least. So yeah it really was life changing and, you know, I would've rather that it would've resolved differently, but that's just the way things evolved. And we made the choice that we did because we felt it was the right one.
 
 Adam: (04:17)
 Yeah. So let's say I'm in a similar position and I'm starting to see signs of abusive leadership somehow in a management position at the company I'm at, you know, what steps should I take? Like what are the steps that someone should take when they start to see those things?
 
 Gordon: (04:35)
 So if you recognize some of the things that I've outlined or specified in the book are happening in your organization coincidentally, I just, I just did at the request of my self-publishing company, I just did kind of a deep dive into that very subject and came up with a piece that will be shared with people that joined my email list and that type of thing. And there are certain things that I think constitute the right way to approach trying to resolve that in your organization. The first one I believe, and probably the most effective, if it is successful is to approach the individual or individuals that you think may be in control of the situation. So if it is your CEO, if it is your general manager that is truly turning the company upside down, or at least in your perception is doing that.
 
 Gordon: (05:33)
 I think that's the first place to go. What better place to resolve it than right at the source, if you can gain some recognition and at least get the conversation started about, you know, why maybe you are misperceiving things. Although in most situations, if you recognize the things that were happening in my story, I don't think you're misperceiving anything, but at least to try to raise awareness with that individual or those individuals and get them to think about what may be the long term consequences, if it can be resolved at that level. I think that's probably the best solution. Failing that, or at least not achieving the level of success you might have liked. I think the next resource might be peers in your organization. So if you are at a mid or senior management level, there are other people that are in your group, so to speak, that you must interface with on a regular basis.
 
 Gordon: (06:37)
 And if you can gain some recognition amongst that group, then you can sort of initiate an intervention, so to speak. So you've got a group of people who are of a like mind that can approach upper management or the senior management and let them know what you are observing collectively and what you think would be a better path to pursue. If you can't build that coalition, then the next place would probably be to try to get the attention of one or more of the elected board members, appointed or elected, however your board is constructed. There's really nobody else in the organization that should care more about oversight and really nobody that has more responsibility for that function. So if you can get the attention of at least one of those individuals, then I think they can actually spread the word amongst the rest of the board members and try to intervene and maybe right the ship so to speak.
 
 Gordon: (07:58)
 So that's probably the next best place and then failing all of those things. You're kind of in my situation or the situation I was in. And really the only alternative I had at that point was to take my case to the public. And, you know, that ultimately ended up in blowing the whistle and having to file a petition to protect my employment, which ultimately failed. But that's the last resort. And I certainly can't advise anyone to take that step. The other alternative or the last alternative, I guess, to that step would be to just check out mentally or physically, you may just resign yourself to the fact, you're not gonna be able to change anything, move on to a different position, if you can find one. And there's a lot of advice out there in the community to do just exactly that, if you can't thrive at your job, if you are being harassed, if you're being subject to something like constructive discharge, like we discussed in the book, then maybe you do just wanna leave.
 
 Gordon: (09:16)
 My choice was not to do that to try to seek resolution through another method and well, the story is what it is.
 
 Adam: (09:24)
 Yeah, yeah. I can imagine how lonely that must have felt not being able to build a coalition within your organization to say, Hey guys, let's right the ship and having to go outside to do the actual whistle blowing because no one, like you couldn't build that within because that can be very lonely at times.
 
 Gordon: (09:45)
 It was. Fortunately I had some people on my staff who are very professional, you know, highly educated, intelligent people and knew what positive leadership really was. And so it wasn't hard. Well, they were actually the ones that initially started observing some of the failings of the current leadership model and, you know, because they filtered down to our level and affected our staff and our resources and just the whole approach to what we were trying to do. So yeah, we had that coalition, but it, it didn't spread far enough.
 
 Adam: (10:29)
 Well for what I hear you were saying, it needs to expand outside your department to many different areas. So, you know, we've talked a lot about the person who is observing those things. Maybe we can circle to, you know, what, if I'm a leader and I'm like, you know what, I wanna avoid abusive leadership. I wanna avoid this constructive discharge. And I wanna run my team, my business, my organization. I wanna run them with an integrity. Are there some tips or some guides that you can give us as we, as we've been talking through this to avoid get going down that road?
 
 Gordon: (10:59)
 You know, one of the things in retrospect that we've discussed a lot is the fact, and I believe it's a fact that a lot of people, perhaps most people who are elevated to positions of leadership, ultimate leadership in an organization, it just simply doesn't come naturally to a lot of people. You have to be intentional about how you are going to lead people. It's not a seat of the pants type of thing. And even I had to come to that realization to the level that I got to in my career I needed to discipline myself to stay on top of what was best for my staff in order to achieve what we wanted to as a department and an organization. And that's my first bit of advice for people who want to aspire to, I guess, to achieve ultimate leadership positions is be intentional about building your leadership skills and maintaining your leadership skills.
 
 Gordon: (12:11)
 And then there are a number of very, very good models out there these days, servant leadership, inspirational leadership. The one that I talk about in my book, which is somewhat dated, but I don't think really ever loses its relevance is the learning organization from Peter Sinji and those components or disciplines of shared visioning and team learning and probably the big one personal mastery. So you know who you are and you can discipline yourself to implement these things that will be better or make your organization better, and then make the investment in, and the people that you are responsible for, as a servant leader, to make sure that you are doing everything to advance their careers, because it just it pays back in the long run.
 
 Adam: (13:12)
 One thing I heard you mention, and I even said it cuz I've just read some of the stuff you've been talking about is constructive discharge. And I realize our audience may not understand what that is. And so maybe we can define that. And how can you determine if you've fallen victim to this practice and what should you do about it
 
 Gordon: (13:28)
 It's referred to in a number of ways constructive discharge, constructive discipline, constructive dismissal. But really what it is, is circumstances created by your employer to make it impossible for you to stay. So in other words, in lieu of them trying to create or document circumstances or reasons to terminate you, what they try to do is, is do things that make it apparent that they don't want you to be there any longer. And really what it amounts to is, workplace harassment. And it's probably probably illegal in most cases subject to the ultimate test, I suppose, but that's what it means is creating those circumstances where you want to make it impossible for an employee to stay so that they make the decision voluntarily to leave. And it's amazing the number of people that I've heard from since, well during the time that we were developing the book and just as I have related my story to people and afterward after it was released about how many have gone through circumstances and recognize what I related in the book as something that they have lived through.
 
 Adam: (14:59)
 So is it something illegal? Is it something that companies are not allowed to do or is it kind of like under the law, that thin gray line that you can kind of do it cuz what you described made me think of, you know, COVID policies where you have to get the vaccine or you can no longer perform your duties, I.E., you're gonna be fired, but they don't say that you're gonna be fired. They say you can no longer perform your duties. So something along those lines, is that constructive discharge, is that an example or is that outside the realms of this?
 
 Gordon: (15:27)
 So I don't think it's cut and dry in every case. I think generally the legal profession regards the term and those circumstances as illegal because they use that as justification for a claim or lawsuit or seeking remedy. So if it is indeed a circumstance where your employer has created conditions where your persecution is unwarranted and it's obvious that they were trying to get you to leave, then, then yeah, I think it is illegal, but it's always subject to the test. And in my situation, fortunately, we didn't have to include that in our claim and in the court proceedings. There were other things that bubbled up to a higher level that we based our claim on. But I felt it was probably necessary to use that term and to describe the circumstances in my story. So that employees, people who are maybe experiencing the same thing can recognize, you know, what's going on and maybe how to address it.
 
 Adam: (16:45)
 Yeah. Cause I can imagine it would be difficult to prove, especially if that's your only claim.
 
 Gordon: (16:51)
 Yeah. I think if we had, especially in my case, if we had pursued that if you look at the things that we had in our documentation to try to make that case, my employee reviews 360 reviews, just pure feedback. It would have been difficult for them to defend having done that. The things that they did to try to get me to leave. But like I say, fortunately, we didn't have to do that. It's yeah. It's I don't think it's a good situation to air your dirty laundry or let somebody else air it and then and try to ring it out in the wind and get things sorted out.
 
 Adam: (17:38)
 I can imagine. So as we kind of wrap up our conversation, this has been a wonderful conversation. Something that you've said a lot. And I've seen you say a lot in some of your articles and your website is that during your search for better management of ethics led you to Aristotle. So as we wrap up our conversation, kind of wrap up everything we talk about, what can we learn from ancient Greece to be better management and ethics.
 
 Gordon: (18:05)
 The Aristotle thread or hook throughout my book and, and the whole process when I was an MBA student, people like Peter Drucker and Chris Argyris and even Ken Blanchard were writing about management and leadership that evolved from Greek philosophers and especially Aristotle. Change management, leadership, service management, everything seemed to have a hook in the virtue ethics that were promoted by Greek philosophers, things like wisdom and temperance and bravery and leniency and justice and all those things were translated into more contemporary management and leadership philosophies. So I remembered that I wrote research papers that were based on things that evolved from the Greek philosophers and just tried to convey how modern management and leadership techniques were anchored in those philosophies. And I think that still exists today.
 
 Gordon: (19:27)
 If you look at the new leadership philosophies, you can find things that actually relate to the Greek philosophers and what they initially or originally espouse. And I think one of the reasons is even though everybody looks at it and refers to it as Aristotle's virtue ethics, the Latin term that they use, that we translate into virtue is probably more correctly translated as excellence. And so if you look at it that way, what they were actually saying was if you follow the behaviors that they promoted, then you can reach the proper state or condition for a human, performing well in the function of being a human being. And I mean, that really anchors every leadership philosophy that you might want to embrace and promote going forward. So that's the whole I guess, Aristotle hook, the reason that he appears so prominently in the book, well, there's a couple of them.
 
 Gordon: (20:38)
 That's the first one, because those Greek philosophers did, I think provide the basis, the launching pad for pretty much everything that we should be promoting in leadership today. And the second one is in the latter part of the book where there was an individual that actually emerged after the original trial verdict who defended the organization, the utility that I worked for against the jury decision. And he was kind of standing out there on his own alone as a defendant against the rest of the community who supported our initiative to try to get a management change and a different perspective for the organization. And he called himself Aristotle. He used that non deplume or pseudonym. And I thought that that was significant because, you know, everything that we had tried to do from a service management leadership perspective was actually anchored in Aristotle's virtue ethics. And here, this fellow was actually defending the more belligerent and destructive leadership of the utility, but he called himself Aristotle. So I thought I'd better get that in the book as kind of a contradiction. So that's the whole Aristotle story. That's why you see him so much in this story. And I just couldn't leave that out when I wrote this book.
 
 Outro: (22:18)
 This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard, and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.

©Copyright 2022 Institute of Management Accountants. All rights reserved.