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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.


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


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.

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.

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.

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.

My choice was not to do that to try to
seek resolution through another method

and well, the story is what it is.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

Yeah. Cause I can imagine it
would be difficult to prove,

especially if that's your only claim.

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.

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.

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.

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


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.
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.

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.

Creators and Guests

Adam Larson
Adam Larson
Producer and co-host of the Count Me In podcast
©Copyright 2019-2024 Institute of Management Accountants. All rights reserved.