Lynne Curry: Snowden, the NSA, you and your company

THE WORKPLACEAugust 4, 2013 

From the outside, the national Snowden-National Security Agency story seems far from your reality and your employer's decision-making. But is it?

Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old defense contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton employee and source behind the biggest intelligence leak in the NSA's history, ranks as one of America's most notable whistleblowers.

Snowden gave up his $200,000 annual salary, girlfriend, family, stable career and Hawaiian home, saying he "can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties" and wanted to "inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

Was he within his employee rights when he notified the press what he'd learned as a defense contractor employee and CIA technical assistant? Was he wrong? What could his federal contractor employer have done to stop this national security breach? If a co-worker of yours did the same thing on a smaller scale, what would you think?

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 legally shields federal employees from employer retaliation for reporting fraud, abuse or waste. According to employment-law lawyers, the law should give appropriate latitude to whistleblowers who expose government wrongdoing even when they're government contractors rather than direct federal employers.

For years, employment attorneys have also taught that public and private-sector employees need not fear retaliation when they voice concerns about illegal wrongdoing in their organizations -- as long as the employees act reasonably and not insubordinately nor violently when they blow the whistle. The laws in many states, including Alaska, protect both private and public-sector whistleblowers.

Snowden felt the National Security Administration's bulk collection of millions of telephone records without suspicion of any crime was absolutely wrong. At the same time, many believe Snowden went far outside protected whistleblower status when he revealed government secrets and potentially compromised national security by exposing the government's massive citizen surveillance program. Snowden also ignored the numerous company confidentiality agreements he'd signed. Can those with top-secret clearance choose for themselves whether to tell all?

While some consider Snowden a traitor, the Government Accountability Project recently noted that Snowden met the legal definition of whistleblower because he disclosed information about a program he reasonably felt was illegal and about which others, including Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, expressed strong concern.

The Government Accountability Project's statement further credits Snowden with using the safest channel available to him to inform the public of government wrongdoing. GAP notes that earlier NSA whistleblowers using internal channels such as NSA's chain of command, congressional committees and the Department of Defense's Inspector General faced reprisals, including years-long criminal investigations and FBI raids on their homes. NSA whistleblower Tom Drake suffered a financially devastating Espionage Act prosecution. Although the case against him ultimately collapsed, the enemy-of-the-state label attached to him ruined his career.

If you're an employee, you might want to think about what options Snowden could have used but didn't and whether his only options were acting against his conscience or externally outing the government's surveillance.

If you're an employer, ask yourself what Booz Allen Hamilton could have done to give employees with ethical concerns an internal avenue for voicing them so the employees wouldn't feel compelled to go straight to the press. Ask yourself: do you clearly let your employees know you value it when they bring forth ethical concerns? Asks human resources consultant Tresha Moreland, "Do your employees feel they must go to the public to be heard? Wouldn't you rather hear directly from your employees than the 6:00 news concerning an ethical situation?"

Do your actions give your employees confidence that you take employee complaints seriously? Do you stay in touch with employees doing the toughest, most potentially compromising tasks -- and ask them how they view those tasks? Do you have mechanisms such as anonymous hot lines and employee surveys that make it easy for your employees to internally report potential violations without fear of retaliation? Says Moreland, "If you don't want to see your employees testifying on the 6 p.m. news, you need to openly discuss sensitive issues with your employees and give them avenues for communicating concerns."

The Snowden case, like no other, forces us to consider what happens when an employee feels his employer's actions violate his conscience and what an employer needs to do to proactively address these employee concerns. When you consider the Snowden case, what do you think and what does it mean to you?

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management-employee trainer and owner of the Growth Company Inc. Send questions to lynne@thegrowthcompany.com and follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10.

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