Do stock options discourage whistleblowing?

Paying hush money is big business, and hardly a day goes by without some press account of a company or powerful individual buying the silence of those with knowledge of wrongdoing. Sometimes this involves settling individual claims with confidentiality provisions – such as today’s story in the NY Times about the various settlements Fox News has paid to silence individuals who claimed they were sexually harassed by that organization’s Bill O’Reilly.  But of perhaps of greater interest to C&E personnel (or at least to me) are what could be considered structural inhibitions on whistleblowing.

Andrew Call, Simi Kedia and Shivaram Rajgopal recently published research they conducted on the relationship between companies issuing stock grants to their employees and employees at such organizations reporting fraud. As described on HBR.org, the possible connection between receiving stock options and deciding to blow the whistle is twofold. First, “the value of stock options is directly tied to the value of the firm’s stock, and … whistleblowing allegations result in an immediate decline in the firm’s stock price, [so] employees stand to lose financially when they blow the whistle. In addition, employee stock options typically have vesting terms that require employees to wait a few years before they can exercise their options, which may act as a disincentive to blowing the whistle before they’re able to exercise their options.”

Their research approach and findings were as follows:

“Using a Stanford Law School database, we identified a sample of 663 firms that were alleged to have engaged in financial misreporting and were subject to class action shareholder litigation in U.S. federal court from 1996–2011. We examined the number of stock options granted to rank-and-file employees during the period of alleged misreporting, and we found that these firms granted more stock options during the misreporting period than did a benchmark sample of 663 similar firms that were not being investigated for financial misreporting. Option grants by these misreporting firms varied over time. Specifically, misreporting firms granted 14% more stock options to rank-and-file employees when they were allegedly misreporting their financials, but the number of options they granted decreased by 32% after they appeared to stop misreporting. These findings suggest that these firms granted additional stock options strategically during periods of alleged misreporting. We also found that these efforts are effective. Misreporting firms that granted more stock options to rank-and-file employees were less likely to be exposed by a whistleblower. Approximately 10% of the firms in our sample were subject to a whistleblowing allegation. Firms that avoided a whistleblower granted 78% more stock options than these firms did not.”

 These are certainly interesting findings, although one wonders if the results would be similar with a study of exclusively post Dodd-Frank cases, given how that 2010 law has greatly enhanced the incentives for whistleblowing in public companies. I also have a hard time picturing a meeting of senior executives and human resources personnel agreeing to a strategy of using stock options to buy employee silence. I’m not saying this never happens but doubt it happens a lot – given the personal risks that participating in such a scheme would create for those involved. However, I can definitely see how this would happen in the poorly lit realm of what is understood but not spoken.

Regardless of how this incentive manifests itself, I think C&E professionals should be aware of it in assessing and responding to the challenge of encouraging employees to internally report wrongdoing in their organizations. For some companies the key will be in increasing disincentives for not reporting, such as imposing serious economic penalties for senior managers on whose watch the wrongdoing occurred regardless of fault by such individuals. For other companies, softer incentives might be what is needed – such as the appeal to a “larger loyalty” described in this previous post on behavioral ethics and whistleblowing. For still others, having a point of risk” communication strategy  around the granting of the option – also a behavioral ethics inspired approach – might be what is called for.

Finally, the study also raises a different issue: should C&E personnel receive stock options? I know of no research on this issue, but this post – which  explores the related area of incentive compensation for “governance monitors” (general counsel and internal auditors)  – may be of interest to readers facing this issue in their organizations.

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