“We didn’t see a ton in Silicon Valley, and suddenly we did,” said Mary Inman, an attorney representing whistleblowers at law firm Constantine Cannon LLP in San Francisco and London. “It just became more of an acceptable path to be a whistleblower; there are role models now.”
Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, revealed herself to be the person who gathered documents that formed the basis of The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series on issues within the social-media company. She has since gone public with her allegations and testified before Congress.
“You do see that, when someone very public comes forward, you are going to end up seeing more people in the tech industry potentially considering coming forward with what they are seeing in their own company,” said Jane Norberg, former chief of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s whistleblower office.
Whistleblowers have become a critical and effective way for companies and regulators to detect and investigate potential wrongdoing, such as bribery and financial fraud. Before Ms. Haugen, Jack Poulson, a former researcher at Alphabet Inc.’s Google, and Theranos Inc. whistleblower Tyler Shultz have spoken out publicly against practices within those tech companies in recent years.
When allegations are reported so publicly, it may spur others in similar fields or at the same company to come forward, a pattern Ms. Norberg said she saw during her nine years with the SEC program. She is now a partner at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP and advises companies on whistleblower allegations.
This has happened in other industries. When a roughly $430 million settlement was made in 2004 after a whistleblower reported that Pfizer Inc.’s Warner-Lambert was promoting one of its prescription drugs for treatments unapproved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it led to more employees stepping forward with information in the pharmaceutical industry, said Erika Kelton, a partner at law firm Phillips & Cohen LLP.
The Facebook whistleblower’s Congressional testimony also coincided with the publication of a website, called The Tech Worker Handbook. The website, created by former Pinterest Inc. employee Ifeoma Ozoma and funded by “philanthropic investment firm” Omidyar Network, is intended to serve as a guide to workers in startups and tech companies who want to speak out. Groups such as the Signals Network, a non-profit supporting whistleblowers, and Lioness, a storytelling platform, are among the content contributors to the site.
Ms. Ozoma, who previously worked on the public-policy team at Pinterest and is now the founder of policy consulting firm Earthseed, said the timing was coincidental as she has been planning the launch of the handbook for more than a year. She said she heard from tech workers every week asking for advice after she went public in 2020, accusing Pinterest of having paid her less than male counterparts and retaliating against her after she made the allegation.
“It’s such a big decision to go against a multi-billion or trillion dollar company,” Ms. Ozoma said. “Before you do it responsibly, you need the information before you make that decision for yourself and your family.”
“We’ve been doing the work to ensure our culture, policies and practices are aligned with our commitment to be a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace for all employees,” said Charlotte Fuller, head of corporate communications at Pinterest, in an email. She added that the company has taken several measures in the past year, including increasing the percentage of women among its leadership ranks, providing employees with transparency in pay and supporting the Silenced No More Act, a California bill co-sponsored by Ms. Ozoma that expands protection for workers who speak out about discrimination and racism in the workplace.
Ms. Ozoma said workers in tech face the same kind of risk and potential industry blacklisting that may prevent people from speaking up. She signed a non-disclosure agreement when she quit her job at Pinterest and said her Slack messages were reviewed by the company.
“I think workers in any industry are susceptible to [being blacklisted], but I think one of the reasons that keeps people from becoming whistleblowers is because it’s so effective in the tech industry,” she said.
Mr. Shultz, the Theranos whistleblower, said the startup’s law firm threatened to sue him after he raised concerns and left the company. Another Theranos worker, Erika Cheung, said she received a threatening letter from Theranos’s lawyers delivered by a man who she said appeared to be following her after she spoke to a WSJ reporter about her experience at the company months after she left Theranos.
Ms. Ozoma hopes that the handbook can be a living document that helps people in the future—not just those working in the tech industry.
“Most people cannot afford to take that risk and end up in years of litigation with a company,” she said. “There has to be an ecosystem of support and resources in this space in order to see the flood of whistleblowing that I think we would all benefit from, because these folks are sharing information that impacts all of us.”
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