Elon Musk Is Mocking Whistleblowers. Here's Why That's a Good Thing | Opinion

Somewhere on Elon Musk's Twitter feed, between the musings about TITS U and Dogecoin, you'll find an invitation, of sorts:

No one can know what is in Musk's head when he's firing off tweets in the middle of the night. But it's fairly certain in this instance, given he had a "cyberwhistle" specially made for the occasion, Musk's intention was to mock would-be whistleblowers, subtly threaten them against coming forward, or demonstrate his conviction that nothing could bring him down. Perhaps it's all of the above. It's not a coincidence that the tweet came out a few days before Tesla was publicly accused by insiders at the company of misrepresenting its vehicles' autonomous driving capabilities, causing a dozen accidents and one fatality.

The cyberwhistle has since sold out, and is no doubt a collector's item for the Musketeer acolytes across the nation who are united by their blind trust in Musk. But if Musk thinks his billions of dollars and millions of Twitter followers exempt him from being held accountable for safety issues in his cars, he may want to look carefully at a recent case with Hyundai.

In 2015, Hyundai engineer Kim Gwang-ho discovered that his company failed to comply with its legal obligation to report a serious safety defect affecting engines placed in Hyundai and Kia cars around the world. The defect meant that some cars were liable to seize up or even go up in flames without warning. Kim took it upon himself to alert the U.S. government, flying from Seoul to Washington on his own dime, bringing his college-age daughter as an interpreter.

Kim was the first whistleblower to receive an award under the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act passed in 2015, which allows the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to pay a monetary award to a whistleblower whose information leads to the successful resolution of an enforcement action for violations of vehicle safety laws. As part of a larger penalty, Hyundai agreed to pay out $81 million to DOT—and under the law, Kim was entitled to up to 30 percent of it, or $24 million.

Twenty-four million dollars isn't $300 billion, but it's enough cash to make the biggest electric car aficionado or space fan think twice. If you're an employee who can make 100 times your annual wage via a whistleblower reward for bringing forward information that will save lives, you probably will. No matter how much you like your job.

And where does that $24 million come from? The company. A successful whistleblower gets a percentage of the fine and penalties levied by the government for the safety infraction. That potential whistleblowing employee Musk is mocking? They could very well hit Musk's own bottom line hard, not to mention tarnish the company's reputation (knowing Hyundai hid the fact that its engines seize up is likely going to affect a customer's purchasing decision). The recent fraud convictions in the Elizabeth Holmes Theranos case show that it's not only a financial risk to ignore an employee who flags a problem. Whistleblowers at Theranos called multiple meetings with senior scientists to express their concerns, only to be shut down repeatedly by Holmes. Holmes is now facing potential time in prison.

Musk's approach of mocking whistleblowers on social media may be a new tactic, but it's from an old playbook. Despite the benefits hearing a dissenting voice can bring to a company, and the potential financial and reputational cost for ignoring that voice, most companies completely miss the opportunity internal dissent offers and fail to ward off a blown whistle in the simplest way imaginable. Like Kim, most whistleblowers only become whistleblowers after numerous attempts to right wrongs through internal company channels fall on deaf ears.

 Elon Musk arrives on red carpet
Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer Award 2020 on Dec. 1, 2020, in Berlin, Germany. Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images

Many in leadership fail to act on these attempts by employees to raise a flag. Instead, they wake up to find themselves embroiled in a news cycle, taking a defensive stance to an allegation, responding from the reptilian, not higher thinking, part of the brain.

Neanderthal man couldn't afford to hear dissent; he had no time to question that the leader was guiding the herd away from the mastodon. Similarly, public relations campaigns are deployed to drown out or discredit voices a company or leader doesn't like. A well-intentioned person is attacked, rather than being seen as providing a helpful, potentially life-saving insight.

Beyond that, whistleblowing is valuable as a check on power. Unchecked power can cause a company or its leadership to become out of touch, sitting in a silo, doing things like deciding it's a good idea to play video games while driving cars, because that's what they'd like to do. The irony is, when you become as powerful as Musk is, fewer and fewer people penetrate the inner circle, but it becomes more important than ever to hear the voices of dissent.

Musk also doesn't seem to see the irony of the fact that he himself built his reputation as an outlier; whistleblowers are nothing if not outsiders. To step up and speak out, whistleblowers stop toeing the party line and challenge the groupthink. They have the guts to tell a leader the things they may not want to hear, but need to hear. Research shows companies that embrace whistleblowers are more profitable than those who don't. Not only do firms with more robust internal whistleblowing earn a greater return on assets than firms who stifle dissent, but they also see 20 percent less in settlement costs.

And whistleblowing isn't going away. Many people aren't aware that they can in fact be compensated for exposing a wrong. Just last year, Congress created a whistleblower reward program for money-laundering violations. Congress is also considering a proposal to create a consumer protection whistleblower program through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). And then there's the False Claims Act, which allows individuals to bring forward information related to a company defrauding the government and which has been around since the Civil War. As employees feel more empowered and see others come forward to expose wrongdoing and receive financial compensation for doing so, companies are going to have to face the fact that covering things up is going to get more and more difficult.

There's no denying Musk has done great things; he had great ideas. And maybe there are still some out there who appreciate his "69" jokes and his misogynistic dismissal of a senator who dares to challenge him. But automobile safety isn't quite so humorous—cute whistle meme or not—when someone playing World of Warcraft in a Tesla hits a pedestrian.

Musk sits now installed as head of a company that has ballooned in valuation to be eight times that of GM and 13 times that of Ford. Mars is his next frontier. But what will it look like when he anoints himself Technoking of Mars? Thanks to recent whistleblowers, we can get an idea.

Recently, a SpaceX engineer called out what she said is the sexual harassment that women have to endure while building rockets in Elon's world, and the indifference he shows to environmental matters. Six women from Tesla have joined a lawsuit alleging the company fostered a culture of "rampant sexual harassment" at its factories. At both companies, several women complained to HR about the behavior and maintain nothing was done about it. This kind of whistleblowing has no financial reward attached, unlike those which expose vehicle safety hazards. But it's just as important.

So thank you Elon, for inventing the Tesla vehicle. And thank you, too, for publicizing the fact that there is a whistleblower reward to check your power. Just don't try to expand your anachronistic empire to Mars. We, and the whistleblowers who courageously speak out, aren't having it.

Mary Inman and Poppy Alexander are partners in Constantine Cannon's whistleblower practice, specializing in representing whistleblowers bringing claims under the various U.S. whistleblower reward programs, including the DOT, SEC, IRS, SEC, CFTC and FinCEN programs and the federal and state False Claims Acts.

Ariella Steinhorn and Amber Scorah are co-owners of Lioness, a media company that brings forward stories about everyday people's encounters with power.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.