The recent news that pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline had received a record-breaking fine for fraud grabbed my attention.
The company admitted to offering doctors regular golf lessons, fishing trips, and basketball tickets while promoting the use of an antidepressant drug for use in children - a use for which it was unapproved. It also and failed to report safety data about a diabetes drug, as well as improperly marketing other drugs. As a result, it was fined an eye-popping $3bn.
As I listened to the story I felt a familiar mix of anger and resignation that wells up when the increasingly frequent examples of corporate misbehaviour hit the headlines. But then the story took another turn, which really piqued my interest.
The illegal activities came to light because an employee blew the whistle. Greg Thorpe raised concerns over the ethics of the company’s business practices with senior managers back in 2001. He was forced out of the company for his pains. So far, so familiar.
But the story didn’t end there - Mr Thorpe took his concerns to US regulators. And far from burying the issue, they spent 10 years getting to the bottom of the story. And here’s where Mr Thorpe’s story differs from those of so many UK whistleblowers. In the US, whistleblowers receive a share of any money recovered by federal government as a result of their disclosures. Yes, you read that correctly - in the US you can actually benefit from bringing to light corporate lawbreaking.
How different from the UK, where whistleblowers are routinely harassed, maligned and disciplined, many having their careers blighted and their mental health destroyed - and often for raising concerns that do not even involve lawbreaking but simply practices that need to improve. If they do receive any money it is in the form of a gagging clause to ensure their information does not reach the public domain.
Yes, Mr Thorpe lost his job, but at least the law in the US takes a more supportive stance towards whistleblowers. Perhaps if we had a similar law here in the UK employers would feel less inclined to protect themselves by destroying the credibility of whistleblowers, and more prepared to learn from the valuable information they disclose.