When Wendy Addison was promoted to International Corporate Treasurer for South African multinational health and wellness company LeisureNet, she thought she’d reached the pinnacle of her career.
“I pretty much thought I’d arrived,” Wendy said. “I had a fantastic office, plush carpets, a lounge suite.” In 2000, LeisureNet’s business was booming. The “darling of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange” was preparing to list on the London and Sydney exchanges, employed 8,000 South Africans, and was ready to open gyms around the world. But under the surface, the reality was a little darker—a foreshadowing of events that would derail Wendy’s career as an accountant and ultimately leave her begging on the streets of London.
The moment of truth
By 2000, Wendy had worked at LeisureNet for nine years and witnessed a range of questionable behavior. “I like to say it was lawful, but awful,” she said. “The tone from the top was all about power over people and only listening to certain individuals, and other people were silenced and expected to be obedient little soldiers.” Beyond her ethical misgivings, Wendy was the only woman on the executive team. Left out of midweek golf outings, she developed a stronger loyalty to the rest of the organization than she did to her fellow executives.
So when she was asked to transfer hundreds of millions of South African rand to an offshore bank account in Jersey, she hesitated. South African law stated that companies could transfer just 50 million rand to countries where they did business, a law intended to keep desperately needed money inside the country. As LeisureNet did no business in Jersey, the irregular transaction raised red flags. Those red flags began to pile up when Wendy asked for more information. “I was given about 320 pages all in German,” she recalled. “I couldn’t fault them on the transparency, but there was clear obfuscation.”
She decided to act, starting with a trip down the hall to the office of the joint CEOs. She told them they’d be breaking the law if they moved forward. Their response? To remind her of their power, and her own vulnerability.
“I thought this would be the right thing in terms of my job. I remember going back to my office and recognizing that I was being met with a moral dilemma. I considered, in those moments, in my plush fancy office, whether I simply look the other way, mind my own business like we’re taught to do…and I began to rationalize why it shouldn’t be me to speak up. Why should I be the one to say anything about this?”
Becoming a whistleblower—and suffering the consequences
Despite her reluctance, Wendy knew she had to do the right thing when she considered how her then 12-year-old son might question her later in life. She placed an anonymous call to the South African Exchange Control Board. Invited to share her misgivings in person, she declined. But a week later, the authorities descended on LeisureNet.
In the ensuing inquiry, Wendy was identified as the person who made that initial call. She lost her job, and that’s when the death threats began. “There was a gang that came to my son’s primary school to signal to me that they could have access to him,” she said. “We’ve got this very real danger, and I decide I have to leave South Africa and we put ourselves in self-imposed exile in the UK.”
Wendy and her son landed on their feet—at first. In London, she took a senior accounting role at Virgin Group, not knowing that founder Richard Branson was in talks to acquire LeisureNet as a result of their liquidation. She was dismissed without explanation just a few months into her new role, and it wasn’t until years later that she learned her former bosses had likely refused to negotiate with the company who employed their accuser.
Having been named as a whistleblower for a yet-unproven case in South Africa, and mysteriously fired after just a short time at Virgin, Wendy was turned away from recruiting agencies and deemed basically unemployable. She went from a plush gig at Virgin to a bare fridge and empty bank account, and after months of trying to find a new job, she stepped into the streets to beg for her and her son’s survival.
Starting over from the bottom
Wendy was desperate to understand what had happened to her—and why. “What is it about the human species that we would rather look the other way?” She asked. “What was it about my team that they all remained silent and turned their backs on me?”
Her pursuit for answers gave her a framework to rebuild her life—a purpose. With nothing to lose, she began calling some of the world’s most prominent social scientists. Professor Dan Ariely of Duke University connected her to Dr. Philip Zimbardo, famous for leading the Stanford Prison Experiment. He sent her to study the neuroscience of decision-making at Stanford. And she persevered in the fight for justice in the LeisureNet case. After 11 years, the joint CEOs went to jail. “This was an amazing line in the sand, and a signal that justice could happen,” Wendy said. “That allowed me then to re-build myself in a very authentic way.”
Wendy went on to found SpeakOut SpeakUp, advising companies on how to build a culture that fosters courageous conversations, and advocating for legislation and policy that protects whistleblowers. Her experience as a whistleblower gives her priceless insight—and the ensuing decades of study mean that she has real expertise into the psychology of speaking up. She advises that it’s up to leaders to model courageous behavior, to build systems, environments, and contexts that reward speaking up. It’s about building the skill of speaking up through practice and repetition, so that vulnerability and honesty become second nature.
“Bad news doesn’t get better with age,” Wendy said. “Get in there quickly. Start with the innocuous, ‘lawful but awful’ behavior.” By the time a real issue may arise, people are accustomed to speaking out, and issues can be caught and corrected.
With the benefit of twenty years of hindsight, and a life rebuilt from the ashes of what was, Wendy might have the skills and knowledge today to follow a more nuanced approach than she did in 2000, confronting LeisureNet’s joint CEOs in the heat of the moment. But it sounds like she’d still make the call to speak up.
“Yes, speaking up has costs,” Wendy said, “but silence has greater costs. It gets in the way of our lives—we didn’t speak up and we allowed an abuse to continue—that is so corrosive to who we think we are. You cannot undo your failure to act.”
Wendy Addison on protecting whistleblowers and building a speak-up culture
We had the chance to speak with Wendy Addison live on World Whistleblower Day. Click here to watch her conversation with Asha Palmer, Convercent by OneTrust Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, and Tomell deSilva Ceasar, Careem Group Head of Ethics and Compliance, on-demand.