Whistle Blowing: A Lonely Walk
During 2009, three people, independently of each other, not even knowing each other, used the words “brave and courageous” when they introduced me. I was then described as “fearless” by yet a fourth relatively unfamiliar business person. I then recalled how my dear friend Dr Renate Volpe had called me during 2006 and invited me to speak on “Courage in Aloneness”, and when I asked her to brief me she said, “Tina, you have a reputation for challenging issues you don’t agree with and for standing up and speaking out when others wouldn’t dare to…it has to be a lonely walk to be a whistle-blower?”. Then, over the last few months, I have had people gobsmacked when I speak of walking out of a well paid and prestigious job simply because my values were different to my superior’s. So, I stopped and I reflected on what on earth it was that these people were seeing in me…
During these hours of introspection, I would recall incidents when I had found myself thinking, “Tina, you really are sticking your neck out now – nobody else has the urge to say something”– or, “Tina, if you speak up now you are jeopardising your career!” There were many memories of times when my brain was shouting “shut up” but my soul was crying, “This is not right – tell them!”…and thus I started to write down some of my experiences, in the hope that my stories will stir others to come forward and speak out when necessary.
The earliest memory I have of being labelled “brave”, dates back to my childhood when I would challenge injustice, whether it was about class distinction or racism and my parents would continuously tell me that there was nothing I could do to change the world and I always got punished for “talking too much”. But my friends and teachers called me “brave”.
Naturally, I raised many eyebrows when I questioned the Greek priest on why he performed certain rituals and why he couldn’t see the difference between religion and tradition. I could – it was simple. I had a user manual, a blue print - whatever wasn’t in the Bible was tradition. So why was he selling it as religion? My beloved Mother would fret and worry about me being struck by lightning! Elders in the church and learned old men would ask, “Tina, what did the priest reply when you asked those questions?” and they were always fascinated by the answers I gave them, answers that were biblical and profound, but they had never asked for themselves!
High school was no different – as a prefect of the biggest girl’s school on the East Rand, you can imagine that I had several close encounters due to my “idealistic” views as someone put it! Anyway, I am going to leave out my youthful years for now, I’m also going to exclude my personal moments of courage – those stories are for another day - and I’m going to concentrate on the last 10 years of my career…
In the late 90’s, I was the COO of a Labour Council, and much as I hate using clichés, I was the only woman with 10 men….men with giant egos – 5 Union Presidents and 5 Employer Body Chairmen. When I was promoted into this position, I inherited the problem of dealing with an agent in the industry that everyone knew and everyone disliked because he was bribing officials at the department and also defrauding shop owners in the Pretoria area. I could not understand or accept why he was allowed to do so and why nobody had put him behind bars, let alone allowed him to operate.
My perpetual questioning during board meetings fell on deaf ears. The agenda item relating to this unsavoury character would be deferred to the following meeting each time. By the sixth meeting, I could not contain myself any longer – when the Chairman told me to stop bringing the matter up because there was nothing that could be done about it, I retorted with, “There has to be something we can do”. One of the Union macho men said, “Tina, what makes you think you can do something if we can’t?” My answer was one I am not proud of, and I was as shocked by my response as everyone else in that boardroom… I stood up, and in those days I only wore skirts, and I said, “Gentlemen, if you had the privilege of looking under my skirt, you would see that I have got bigger balls than all of you put together! Either I do something about this thief, or I leave.” With that, I picked up my file and my handbag and I went and sat in the bathroom…I was trembling and horrified at what I had said – I had always been a lady! I believed that I would be fired and I was petrified of the consequences. I needed the salary as I was still paying the attorneys for my divorce, my mother was ill and my son was at university.
Suddenly there was a knock on the bathroom door and the secretary summoned me to the boardroom. I breathed deeply, and prepared myself for the worst. I told myself that I had acted like a man and now I must take what I get- like a man! I could not even look at anyone – the Chairman went on with the agenda as though nothing had happened and when he reached “General”, he instructed the secretary to minute: “a full mandate for Mrs Thomson to approach Solomon, Nicholson, Rein and Verster”, a firm of highly reputable attorneys, “and to pursue the case.” Then he then added, “…and double Mrs Thomson’s salary – we have wanted to reward her passion and commitment for a quite a while now”!
I didn’t flinch and today I am still ashamed of my choice of words…but, the perpetrator is still behind bars! Two of the Councillors were struck off the board – they had protected the accused because they had been threatened by him - he knew of their tax evasion tactics. My departure from this Council two years later was very dramatic and I need not discuss those circumstances here – suffice to say that I had to have a bodyguard for a month! Seven copies of my affidavit were distributed to prevent anyone burying the facts! I’m sad to say that two years ago, the man who served as Chairman when I was there was shot execution style and his eyes were gouged out! I do not know the details of his murder – I do know however that if you live by the sword...you die by the sword!
Due to some confusion about the meaning of the term, whistle-blowers have unfairly acquired a bad reputation as being trouble makers, busy bodies and even – disloyal employees! This is exactly what happened to me in my next job where as the HR and PR Manager in a large family owned enterprise. I was told that I was being disloyal when I informed the Patriarch that his son-in-law, one of the directors, was abusing his power when instructing the staff to lie about their whereabouts when they were reprimanded for not being on duty…..they were in fact waiting upon his mistress! I refused to allow the staff to be abused in this manner and especially not to lose money that was being deducted off their wages!
Unfortunately throughout the workplace, the stigmatisation of whistle-blowing is seen as an activity to be despised rather than being encouraged. If understood correctly, whistle-blowing is not about informing in a negative, anonymous sense. Rather, as the United Kingdom’s Committee on Standards in Public Life puts it, it is about “raising a concern about malpractice within an organisation” and in this way it is a tool to promote individual responsibility and organisational accountability. Regrettably, in speaking up, people more often than not risk victimisation, recrimination and sometimes dismissal. In refusing to turn a blind eye to impropriety in the workplace, whistle-blowers deserve support if not praise! This story ends well – the son in law left the country and the Patriarch is still offering me my job back!
George Bernard Shaw said, “there are 2 tragedies in life: one is to lose your heart’s desire, the other is to gain it!” I’d like to pick up on the second point he makes – gaining your heart’s desire: whilst success and achieving one’s goal can hardly be described as a tragedy, achieving one’s goal comes with its fair share of challenges!
On the 7 December 2004, I was inducted as the CEO of the Businesswomen’s Association (BWA). The happy moments and the rewards of achievement are always super, but the new responsibilities and the unfamiliar territory that go with success always take one by surprise! Each time one expands to a new level of success, one’s identity is slightly altered. Remaining authentic is not easy. The biggest challenge is handling the power responsibly. The true meaning of power is the ability to manifest your desires in the world. In its purest intended form, it radiates from the source of all life through every human being. How powerful you are depends on how much you trust and cultivate your connection to that source.
I witnessed some women who did not understand the meaning of the word power, but rather, they thought of it as the extent to which they had control and dominance over others and the level of influence that they possess. The lesson presented to those who rise to positions of power is the most challenging one there is…..there is always a lure towards abusing the power for personal gain and satisfaction versus using it for the good of the organisation. I often warned certain of the board members – if you go on a power trip, the power will trip you! This statement was never well received…
Every single crisis that I had during my tenure as CEO had “abuse of power” as its root cause! A fine example was a conference organised by 6 very powerful women - women of incredible status and means…they were not all BWA members, but they were probably the 6 most powerful businesswomen in SA…I had to tell them several times that they did not know how to plan a conference, let alone set a budget, and in the end I had to threaten them with the media if they didn’t distance the name of the BWA from their failed project! I can assure you I was ostracised and victimised – however, I remained focused and I fulfilled my role as custodian of the Association, and I always did this at any cost. Benjamin Disraeli said, “There is no education like adversity”….
Once in a position of power, one is always faced with the the question, when is it time to take charge, and when is it time to relinquish control? Well, I had done my bit, it was time to relinquish control – I had not only turned the organisation around and delivered on a 2 year strategy in 8 months, I had also provided a new strategy for the massive growth that the organisation is going through. I stressed 4 points that had to be considered, and these points must always be applied when change is imminent...
- The vision must be shared – a vision based on shared values
- Open Communication – this is the ONLY antidote to the insecurity and unstable feelings induced by forthcoming change
- Personal integrity - this is imperative – personal integrity builds trust
- Courage and Strength for the change – this is gut-wrenching at times, but as painful as it is, the process must go on….all change must be conducted with respect and dignity and those who don’t want to relinquish power must be forced to do so for the good of the organisation
I believe in change and I needed to move on to allow someone with a fresh passion and drive to take the organisation to new heights. I had achieved what I set out to do and had reached a plateau.
Early 2008, I re-entered the arena of promoting women in business. I knew I would be challenged because the organisation I was about to enter was notorious for non-delivery of projects due to lack of effective leadership, processes and procedures. But I was excited at the opportunity to turn the organisation around and be instrumental in assisting women to build their businesses. What I didn’t know was that I would be faced with a superior who broke every rule from A to Z. I raised my concerns with the board within the first month. I walked out at the end of the second month when I realised they weren't going to escalate my reports. Blowing the whistle on this corrupt individual jeopardised my safety and cost me dearly as I couldn't earn a living for 3 months. However, I would do it all again. I will never compromise my beliefs and values for anything or anyone.
So, what has been the cause of my “aloneness”? For me it has been my principle-centred existence – my spirituality. Many have heard me talk about resilience and I always say that one has to have a core of unchanging beliefs to survive the chaos of the workplace, and indeed, of life itself. I like to use the analogy of my late grandfather who was a 'weights and measures' inspector in the 1940s. He knew that if he placed a weight on the scale of a Café owner’s scale and the scales didn’t balance – it was the shop keeper at fault – my grandfather’s weights had not changed at all.
Similarly, my beliefs do not change and I have a “measure” against which I weigh every decision I make. I will give a few examples of what my principles are as opposed to the unwritten business laws that one often finds – naturally I am generalising when I refer to the business principles:
|the object is to achieve results||my object is to serve a purpose|
|what can I get?||what can I give?|
|leadership is being first||leadership is being last|
|take charge! because surrender is defeat||let go because surrender is victory|
So, these are some of my stories - this is exactly what I did – I stood up, I looked up, I reached up, I spoke up, and I held up!
The truth is the most valuable asset that one can ever possess. It is not negotiable.