[Viewpoint] Society must protect whistle-blowers

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[Viewpoint] Society must protect whistle-blowers

Whistle-blowers are viewed in two very different lights. One is as protector of a transparent and fair society and the other is as a disgraced person. The first image is because of the fact that an employee uncovers corruption - both big and small - and irregularities; the second one is based on the perception that the employee must have been extremely cold and unfaithful to expose the secrets of coworkers, bosses and the company.

Whistle-blowing that is prompted by a sense of conscience can occur during election campaigns. In the 1990s for example, Army First Lt. Lee Ji-mun reported that his military leaders ordered soldiers to vote for ruling party candidates, and his remarks shook the election at the time.

Whistle-blowing has played a significant role in politics, but these days, the corporate community has been under fire - there have been several recent high-profile scandals in Korea.

Last year, a prominent case in the United States involved Pfizer Inc., the world’s largest drugmaker. Pfizer was ordered to pay $2.3 billion in fines in connection with illegal drug promotions after a whistle-blower revealed that the company had promoted an arthritis drug while hiding its negative side effects.

The company even created a manual for its employees in which they were instructed to tell any doctors who discovered information on the side effects that the details came from disgruntled former employees.

A U.S. court awarded John Kopchinski, the Pfizer whistle-blower, $51.5 million. Kopchinski, a Gulf War veteran, said he learned in the military to protect lives at all costs, and he felt he could not sell the drugs.

A few years ago, a different whistle-blower revealed that Pfizer had misleadingly sold Genotropin, a growth hormone drug, as an anti-aging pill. If the company had changed its ways back then, it might have been able to avoid paying last year’s record-high settlement to Kopchinski.

There have been many whistle-blowing cases in Korea as well. Conglomerate chairmen have stood in court one after another, accused of political bribes and malfeasance. The ongoing investigations into suspect practices by Taekwang Industrial Co. and Hanwha Group also began because of whistle-blowers.

An adviser to Taekwang had kept a detailed report of alleged corruption and handed it over to prosecutors, prompting the current investigation. In the Hanwha case, the investigation starting point was a tip from a retired employee about bank accounts managed under false identities.

“As companies grow so big and complex, they take increasingly strong security measures,” a prosecution official said. “Without whistle-blowers, it is almost impossible to launch a probe into a company.”

Of course, whistle-blowers are viewed as enemies by corporations. Many businesses have developed measures to root them out.

Providing carrots is part of the strategy. Executives who are well-informed about corporate information are treated well, even after their retirement. In some cases, they were given up to 70 percent of their usual compensation, together with a car, driver and secretary.

Sticks are also severe. Whistle-blowers are subjected to character assassination, and sometimes even treated as if they have personality disorders. Companies try to make sure that whistle-blowers never find another job in the business community.

Business Week did an analysis in 2006 into 230 companies with whistle-blowing scandals. Of the whistle-blowers, 82 percent were pressured to leave their company or became a subject of isolation.

The situation in Korea is worse.

Although there are no official statistics, Hankook Ilbo reported in 2007 that 19 out of 20 whistle-blowers in cases revealed since 1990 said they were isolated by coworkers, with 16 out of 20 fired or punished.

A society and companies that treat whistle-blowers as outcasts should not feel confident about their actions, because they won’t be able to sustain their suppression.

It is time for Korea to establish measures to protect and encourage whistle-blowers by guaranteeing them employment and compensation. More important, it is crucial for us to change our view of whistle-blowers. If we treat them as tattletales, we won’t have a transparent and fair society.

*The writer is business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Yi Jung-jae
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