(English and Portuguese) – Before going on, a warning: I have no answers, only questions. While Brazil discusses corporate governance issues actively and “good practices” are known (not necessarily practiced), I have always wondered why whistleblowing never made its way to the topic list, gained depth or hit headlines.

As investigation unveils the widespread, deep and systemic corruption in Petrobras, baffling even for the most jaded, I ask myself: didn’t employees know? Don’t they have proof? Why hasn’t anyone gone public to denounce management – why are employees so silent? On December 12, 2014, the solitary voice of Venina Velosa da Fonseca [1] came out. Suspended from her duties and placed in the bucket of employees under investigation, the company manager decide to go public saying what she knew, testifying and providing proof that she had warned superiors of malpractices and that nothing was done about it.

Perhaps she has nothing to lose, but I don’t want to add to the disqualification efforts government officials, politicians and the company’s management have diligently made to discredit her. On the contrary, her behavior is quite new to this environment. My question is why is she the only voice we hear?

Management level corporate employees do not have to be geniuses to know that if corruption exists in the company, at least, some employees know all or parts of it and often maintain proof just in case they come under suspicion, particularly if they are required by superiors to act against governance and code of conduct rules. Financial area employees who make payments and understand numbers usually know how to detect when something is fishy, despite all convenient functional separation that often makes it difficult for those who are not at the top to put two and two together.

I have often suspected that the reluctance of companies (even big and sophisticated) to invest in internal transparency, clarify and unify information sources resulted not only from the daunting technical difficulty of handling huge amounts of data and turning it into information, but was also because integrated thinking, transparent and visible information, evidences good and bad management and helps detect corruption. The maintenance of corporate silos is not solely the outcome of growth pains and size it is also a convenient mechanism of corporate social control and power maintenance.

But the Venina story serves to show some of the problems whistle blowers go through. The first and easy part is public disqualification and if possible ridicule. Abstaining from listing the heavy stuff – life threats, intimidation, etc., there are many relevant questions to ask. If an employee was to blow the whistle how would he/she go about it? Are the “normal” denunciations channels equipped to handle these cases and are they trust worthy? Should they be internal to the companies or handled by outside exempt parties?

How will employees be protected? It is not just a matter of keeping their jobs, but of also maintaining their employability and the relevance of their functions. If they decide to leave will other companies hire them? How to protect them from moral harassment from superiors, politically charged fellow workers, or simply the fear of those who value job security so much that they do not want to stir anything?

Do we have the necessary laws in place to protect and incentive whistleblowing? Does the Brazilian society want them? Does the Brazilian authoritarian culture contribute to passiveness and lack of empowerment? Do people fear the freedom of empowerment because it inevitably comes hand in hand with a necessary, but dreaded accountability? If a culture that hates agency because it implies taking responsibility for one’s actions prevails, do we need to change it? Will we be competitive in the global scene if we don’t? Will we linger behind the world leaders, or do we want to speed up change? Does the fact that Brazilians value good relations and avoid confrontation – even if it is healthy and leads to progress and problem solving – prevent individuals from standing out from the crowd? What should we do to make sure whistleblowers are serious and if so be morally valued people, instead of becoming icons who people say they admire but want them as far away as possible? What will be done so that they are not eternally stigmatized as dedo duros[2]? How do we help employees know how and what kind of proof to collect? How do we provide incentives for those who denounce? And then what are the strategies and actions to adopt to change behavior and values?

This is only a glimpse of the questions that need to be asked, but I hope that current events serve to kick-off a serious discussion on whistleblowing in Brazil’s corporate and government spheres.


[1] Diretoria da Petrobras foi alertada de desvios – Valor Econômico (12-12-14)

[2] Literally “stiff finger” an expression that carries a negative connotation because the act of denouncing is socially looked down upon.

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