Wal-Mart Whistleblower Lands a Job
Chalace Epley Lowry, the whistleblower at Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), has a job.
In June, BusinessWeek.com wrote about Lowry (BusinessWeek.com, 6/13/07), an administrative assistant in the company's communications department, after she reported what she believed could have been insider trading by a senior executive and then found herself looking for a new job. At the time, Wal-Mart told Lowry she had 60 to 90 days to find another position within the company, but it would not promise her a new post.
A Harrowing Process
Four months later, Lowry has a full-time job at Wal-Mart headquarters. It hasn't been an easy journey. Lowry applied for more than 30 positions within Wal-Mart. She was called to interview for five positions and didn't end up with any of them. Later, she received a post in human resources that she hadn't formally put in for. Lowry says the past weeks couldn't have been more stressful, contributing, she believes, to her recent diagnosis of stress-induced angina and to the breakup of her marriage. "The past four months have been very hard and, in my opinion, unfair to an honest, 51-year-old woman who chose to do the right thing," says Lowry.
Lowry made her controversial complaint last spring. Mona Williams, vice-president for corporate communications, had asked her to make digital copies and send some papers that Lowry thought were related to stocks. A few days later, Lowry found out that Wal-Mart was planning a $15 billion stock buyback, and she worried that Williams might have traded on insider information by exercising her stock options. Lowry was prompted to file her complaint with the company's ethics department in part because of an orientation session she had when she started at Wal-Mart in January that put a heavy emphasis on corporate ethics. "I acted in good faith, just pointing out that there might have been some wrongdoing," said Lowry in June.
Wal-Mart has said that its ethics office investigated the matter and that Williams was cleared the same day the complaint was filed. A spokesman for the company said in June that Lowry mistook a deferred compensation form for an options exercise request.
Disclosure Led to Discharge
Soon after she filed the complaint, however, Lowry's identity as the whistleblower was disclosed to Williams. Wal-Mart says Lowry agreed to disclosure, but Lowry says she was never given a choice. At that time, a distressed Lowry said it was impossible to remain in the communications department since Williams was effectively her boss, so she asked to be transferred. That's when Lowry says she was told she had 60 to 90 days to find another position at the company.
Lowry is relieved that she finally landed a new job at Wal-Mart. But she is a bit shaken by the process. In the days following the complaint, she was questioned by Wal-Mart's human resources, legal, and ethics departments about the circumstances surrounding her speaking up. In one instance, a representative from human resources wanted Lowry to write and sign a document stating that she voluntarily asked to be removed from her job. Lowry declined to comply, because she felt cornered and under pressure. "Associates should proceed through [Wal-Mart's] Open Door policy with extreme caution," she says. Wal-Mart didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.
While she was looking for a job within Wal-Mart, Lowry on Sept. 5 filed a whistleblower complaint with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. OSHA administers whistleblower protections under the Corporate & Criminal Fraud Accountability Act of 2002, better known as Sarbanes-Oxley. The law was enacted July 30, 2002, to protect employees in publicly traded companies from retaliation for providing information that an employee believes is a violation of Securities & Exchange Commission regulations or other federal laws relating to fraud against shareholders.
Still "Under the Microscope"
Around mid-August, Lowry was moved to assist a legal team of two attorneys in Wal-Mart's human resources group, known as the People division. On Oct. 1, Lowry was informed that her job is no longer temporary and she could work there full-time. "I guess I should consider myself lucky at this point," she says. "But all of this should never have happened. I still feel I'm under the microscope."
Ironically, one of the two attorneys that Lowry will be working for is Sharon Butcher. She was the attorney at Enron who was given the task of handling Sherron Watkins' request for reassignment to a new position after Watkins wrote a memo to then-CEO Ken Lay questioning the company's accounting.