Ian Foxley was six months into his new job overseeing a $3.5 billion supply contract between the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Saudi Arabia’s National Guard, when he noticed that a procurement document requiring his signature included $2.5 million in strange, additional charges.
Listed under the vague heading “Bought in services,” the payments sent alarm bells ringing.
It was not the first sign that something was wrong. Since moving into his new offices in Riyadh, Foxley, a former lieutenant-colonel in the British army, had observed a number of anomalies in the behavior of his fellow directors, the company’s processes and its relationships with subcontractors.
Similar smaller charges added on to earlier projects had been explained as cleaning contracts or minor supplies which were “none of his concern.” But when questions over these latest additions were brusquely dismissed by other senior managers, he realized there was a problem. All the evidence suggested that Foxley’s employer, a defense contractor hired by MoD, was paying bribes to officials and expecting him to sign off on them. The question now was, what was he to do?
When faced with evidence of bribery, Foxley made the brave decision of taking a stand, but he paid a price.
When the day came for him to sign off on the documentation he refused, prompting a meeting with his managing director who gave him the choice to resign or have his contract terminated. Given several days to consider the options, Foxley contacted the company’s former financial controller, “Martin,” who had been removed from his role for questioning payments, and who confirmed Foxley’s suspicions that corruption was deeply entrenched in the firm’s practices.
Martin had been asked to pay millions of dollars to two Cayman Island firms and to sign off on payments for luxury cars and jewellery to be used to bribe government officials involved in the program’s procurement process. When he had tried to blow the whistle, he had been removed from his post and given a worthless job. With a wife and young child still living in the country, Martin was vulnerable to coercion. While he was not prepared to hand Foxley documentary proof, he directed him to his old emails.
Foxley followed the electronic paper trail and sent the relevant material through to the head of the UK military team overseeing the telecommunications contract. Any expectation of help were shattered four hours later when his managing director summoned him to a meeting and threatened to have him arrested and jailed for theft of company documents. Realizing such a fate in a foreign country under tight autocratic rule might be tantamount to a death sentence, Foxley left the office, headed straight to his car, and drove to a safe rendezvous before catching the next available flight out of the country.
He was free, but the ramifications were severe. His attempts to sue for unfair dismissal were dismissed, with the company arguing British courts had no jurisdiction over the overseas employment contract. Legal fees ate substantially into his family savings and despite his knowledge, experience and professional capability he found himself with the reputation of “being too hot to handle” and has not worked for a major defense contractor since.
Since his story became public, Foxley has co-founded an organization to support current and future whistleblowers.
His advice to anyone looking to blow the lid on an employers’ wrong-doing is to be prepared:
- Get yourself serious protection, or move to a safe haven before blowing the whistle.
- Be very careful who you trust. The most respected of colleagues could resort to obeying orders if their own livelihood is threatened.
- Ensure you have a safe deposit of irrefutable documented evidence before you act.
- Be ready for a long drawn-out stressful experience which will test your moral, mental and physical strength to the limit.
- Ensure you have the support of your partner: when the commercial world turns against you, you need a secure home base to retreat to.
- Ensure you find out what the prescribed routes for disclosure are and (if possible) take independent legal employment advice so you can take recourse through the courts if needs be.
“My experience has shown that no matter how well prepared or strong you think you are, few will be ready for the challenge presented by whistle-blowing. Anyone who goes ahead will be changed by the event and its aftermath,” Foxley said.
But despite the sacrifices he has no regrets. What’s most important, he insists, is that “when faced with the man in the mirror, I’m still able to look myself in the eye.”
The case involving Ian Foxley remains under investigation for potential prosecution. Further details are available on the following links: Corruption crusaders warn against meddling in Saudi bribery probe, Financial Times, October 14, 2014, How EADS whistleblower took flight, Financial Times, August 14, 2014, Airbus staff quizzed in SFO probe into alleged Saudi corruption, Financial Times, July 8, 2014.
N. Craig Smith is The INSEAD Chaired Professor of Ethics and Social Responsibility. He is also the programme director of the Healthcare Compliance Implementation Leadership Program, one of INSEAD’s executive development programs. A version of this post appeared in INSEAD Knowledge.