The Washington Post

SEC and whistleblowers: Should money buy information?

Is it right for insiders to be paid cash to blow the whistle? That’s the question the SEC will be weighing on Wednesday when it votes on a proposal to reward company insiders as much as 10 to 30 percent of the cash the SEC reaps from enforcement actions, to which the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation says they are entitled.

It’s a complicated one. On the one hand, the corporate wrongdoing exacted on the U.S. economy—from Enron and WorldCom to the mortgage crisis brought to you by your local Wall Street bank—is grounds for a better effort to encourage whistleblowers to come forward. To do so, they have to know their jobs will be protected, and proceeds from a major enforcement action could at least serve as a safety net should their employer retaliate against them.

And yet, it raises all kinds of questions about how introducing money into the transaction will affect its outcome. Cold hard cash, after all, has a way of compelling people to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise—thanks to the opportunity for huge bonuses, traders have taken dicey positions, managers have fudged the numbers on their quarter and leaders have ignored warnings that could hurt their record. In the case of whistleblowing, it could prompt some to point fingers in the wrong direction, or to alert the SEC to any and every minor infraction they see, dividing the attention of an already overtaxed workforce of investigators and distracting them from the truly egregious cases being tracked.

That’s sure to be part of the lobbyists’ argument, at least. Business groups are hard at work, the Post reported Monday, trying to get the SEC to scrap the proposal or make serious changes to it. They want the SEC to first alert companies to the problem and give them a chance to correct it, arguing that it otherwise “deputizes” employees to the government who have a responsibility to their employers. (Except that wrongdoing is wrongdoing, and that social contract was broken long ago.)

I think a proposal that encourages more whistleblowing is a good thing—insiders are in the best position to share information that would be helpful to the SEC in catching financial wrongdoing or corporate crooks. And I’m not completely against paying out cash rewards to a select few who notify the government of wrongdoing that ends in a successful action against a firm. There’s no doubt, after all, that reform is needed to improve how much oversight the SEC has over corporate investigations.

But any move to pay money for information should be examined extremely closely. At its heart, whistleblowing is an act of doing the right thing—and a tough thing—because someone knows wrong is being done. It’s typically motivated by employees’ sense of fairness and justice, rather than by monetary rewards. Messing with those motivations can be a dicey proposition: Just look at how bonuses can color the simple idea of working hard for a job well done. The first and most important reward whistleblowers should get is protection—real and enforceable job security, as well as careful preservation of their right to anonymity. Then, lawmakers should seriously weigh the pros and cons of injecting money into what’s traditionally been a non-financial transaction. It might very well work. But it’s likely to bring its own set of problems with it, too.

More from On Leadership:

Why Christine Lagarde should run the IMF

Tepco president steps down in ‘symbolic close’

Be in the know on everything we’re covering here at The Post’s On Leadership section. Follow us on Twitter (@post_lead) and “like” our page on Facebook (On Leadership at The Washington Post).

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.


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