Where?s the whistle? | india | Hindustan Times
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Where?s the whistle?

Most whistle-blowers suffer some sort of retaliation or punishment from their companies, reports Ravi Srinivasan.

india Updated: Nov 16, 2006 03:18 IST

In many ways, Pradeep Akkunoor’s life is a typical Indian genNext success story. The son of an Indian Air Force serviceman, he worked his way through college for his computer engineering degree. Next stop: a crack at the Indian middle class dream—getting into one of the IIMs, bag the coveted MBA and, hopefully, live happily ever after.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. Not because he didn’t make the cut, but because he couldn’t. The night before the IIM entrance test, Akkunoor heard that somebody was peddling IIM entrance test papers. He promptly blew the whistle. What’s more, he even surrendered his hall ticket, so that the police, with the help of some journalists, could set up a decoy customer and nab the gang. He even insisted that he should be kept completely out of the limelight.

It was a stunning sacrifice for a boy from a middle income family from a small town. Especially since family circumstances didn’t allow Akkunoor the luxury of waiting another year for a second shot at his dream goal. MBA aspirations were given up and he joined India’s swelling ranks of tech workers.

Akkunoor, now a tech entrepreneur, never regretted his decision. Nevertheless, like whistle-blowers everywhere, he had to pay a price for having a conscience.

As Professor Larry Ponemon, a specialist in business ethics and the man who created the compliance risk management practice at consulting giant Pricewaterhouse Coopers warned a troubled executive on his website recently: “Be prepared. The consequences of your actions may be hard on you and your family. Most whistle-blowers suffer some sort of retaliation or punishment from their companies and coworkers.”

That’s in the US, where most corporates have developed and strengthened protection for whistle-blowers post the Enron fiasco.

In India, though, the situation is troublingly different. Especially in the booming IT/BPO sector, which has been hit by a series of damaging exposes of data theft and fraud. A few more damaging exposures could well derail India’s BPO juggernaut.

The industry’s apex body, the National Association of  Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) estimates that combined IT/BPO revenues for the current fiscal will be in the range of $33 billion to $ 36 billion. BPO revenues alone are estimated to account for 30 per cent of this, logging an annual growth rate of over 33 per cent.

But it’s not just the money. What is more troubling has been the industry’s response. The knee-jerk reaction has been to tighten security and controls on employees. Some of the measures are draconian.

Many BPOs frisk employees on entry and exit, make them surrender all personal items and bar all non work-related telephonic or internet contact. Conversations are recorded and most have security cameras at the workplace monitoring staff.

What they haven’t done is to create and institutionalize a system of educating their staff—many barely out of school or college—on ethics. A spot poll conducted by Indiaforensic Consultancy Services among BPO workers in Pune found that 90 per cent of the respondents were not only unaware of any whistle-blowing or fraud reporting system in their companies, but were even unclear as to what constituted a fraud or a breach of ethical business practice. 

In abelated move, NASSCOM has started the process of creating a self-regulatory body to oversee issues of  data security and create standards for privacy and security.

Months after the announcement, though, the body is yet to take shape. Meanwhile, it could perhaps set the process in motion by creating anonymous phone-in helplines and a website or an e-mail id to help whistle-blowers in India’s knowledge sector.

Email Ravi Srinivasan: ravi.srinivasan@hindustantimes.com