After the last 10 years of corporate and banking scandals, who could blame anyone for thinking that corruption is as American as apple pie. The parade of company executives cheating the system and rarely going to prison for their transgressions has become routine.
Is it any wonder that the 2014 Gallup poll results that measured confidence in our institutions were so dismal? Only one in four Americans trust banks, far below the pre-recession level of 41% in 2007. Of course, that was before major Wall Street banks helped trigger the worst recession of modern times. But big business fared even worse in the 2014 poll — a large majority of us (four in five) believe corruption is widespread across corporate America.
Public policy researchers Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers said in a 2011 study “during times of higher unemployment or economic downturn; the public has far less trust or confidence in finance, big business, and government. And when the economy improves, those approval ratings inch up.”
It would be logical to think that principled behavior also would “inch up” during boom times. Not so. Executives are more inclined to gloss over those pesky ethical gray areas. That’s when they cut corners, chisel or steal outright from investors. They are, after all, paid to pump up profits.
New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof describes the high-risk behavior of males as “male herding.” He contends that if there were more women seated at the table, they would “contribute to ethical moorings that dissuade unethical business practices.” Whistleblower Anita Hill wrote in a New York Times op-ed that women hold on to their “outside values” even when they get to “move up within male-dominated inside circles.”
In 2014, a corruption watchdog group released findings that placed the U.S. somewhat close to the top of the list of clean countries — or 17 among 174 countries and territories. The Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index seemed to contradict the Gallup poll conclusions. But the picture is less rosy when you dig deeper. Not only do we lag behind other advanced economies, but we’re also roughly equal to several countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.
One very plausible explanation is the murky nexus between corporate money and politics in all levels of our government. Companies wouldn’t be spending their cash on lobbying and campaigns if they got nothing in return. Those countries that scored highest on the index have strict donation and expenditure limits on political campaigns.
Until our policies are serious enough to deter corporate greed, whistleblowers are our only hope. More and more, they’re playing the role of moral watchdogs. But corporations intent on blunting the whistleblower reforms embodied in the Dodd-Frank Act have long been muzzling their employees with non-disclosure agreements.
That’s beginning to change. This month, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) hit back at a corporate bully that threatened a whistleblower. The giant defense contractor KBR had required employees to sign confidentiality agreements that “chilled” their ability to report financial crimes to the SEC, Justice Department or any other government agency. The SEC fined KBR $130,000 and — though the company admitted no wrongdoing — it has since clarified in their agreements that employees are free to report misconduct.
And the news gets even better. The agency’s broader probe into whistleblower harassment is heating up. It recently sent letters to several companies asking for years of nondisclosure agreements and employment contracts, according to the Wall Street Journal. It’s beginning to become clear to corporate America and Wall Street that trying to gag whistleblowers is no longer a winning game plan.