Blogs & Comment

Pipeline whistleblowing: Getting the ethics right

Whistleblowing is always unfortunate, and can reveal a lot about corporate culture.

It was reported recently that an engineer for TransCanada, Evan Vokes, has gone public with claims that the pipeline company has been lax in the standards it applies to having its pipelines inspected.

Whistleblowing is among the most complex ethical issues in the world of business. Whistleblowers are people who demonstrate that there is a limit to the loyalty of even a dedicated employee. Whistleblowers go outside the boundaries of their organization to report actual or imminent wrongdoing. They often prevent grievous harm, but in doing so they inevitably impugn the character of their organizations, and sometimes of their co-workers. And of course, there’s always the worry that the self-appointed whistleblower is actually just a malcontent bent on revenge. But such cases aside, whistleblowers perform an essential public service.

A few points are worth making about the TransCanada case in particular.

The first is that, at least as the story is told by the CBC, Vokes is the perfect whistleblower. He’s got the relevant expertise (he’s both a welder and an engineer) and he’s got a reputation for honesty and integrity. Further, he carried out the whistleblowing properly: he proceeded in perfect ethics-textbook fashion by first making his concerns known to his superiors, and then escalating up the chain of command. Only when it became clear that internal channels weren’t working did he go outside of the company to bring his concerns to the relevant regulatory agency.

Second, the fact that Vokes felt the need to blow the whistle suggests a failure of leadership within the company. According the the CBC’s report, everyone “right up to the chief executive officer refused to act on his complaints.” A leader isn’t just someone who gives orders. A manager is someone who coordinates and motivates people. A leader has to be more than that: he must listen, exercise judgment, and be able to see the forest, not just the trees.

Finally, it’s worth highlighting the fact that, as is so often the case, this whistleblower was frustrated by the continual assurances he received that everything was just fine, when he knew that in fact it was not. Of course, a degree of faith that things will work out fine is essential for any organization. Pessimism and skepticism can undermine enthusiasm for the mission. So it’s not good enough to just keep repeating, “It’s fine”—just like everything was “fine” with the O-rings on the solid-fuel booster of NASA’s space shuttle, Challenger. Clearly there are limits to the value of a can-do attitude. So organizational leaders need to listen, and institute concrete processes for receiving and acting upon dissent.

The latest update to this story, of course, is that TransCanada is no longer claiming that “everything is fine.” The company has temporarily shut down its Keystone pipeline, citing safety concerns.

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.