"They'll isolate you, exclude you, encourage you to leave the company and to move," said Cynthia Cooper, former vice president of the internal audit department at WorldCom, talking about her experience as a whistleblower.
Her keynote speech kicked off the Joint National Conference, an annual three-day event organized by the American Society of Women Accountants and the American Woman's Society of CPAs at the Coronado Springs Resort at Disney World. The event attracted more than 350 participants.
Cooper is known for her role in uncovering more than $3 billion in fraud at the telecommunications company in 2002. She asked audience members if they had ever been in the position of being asked to do something at their jobs that they didn't feel comfortable doing.
"It's usually a slippery slope," Cooper said. "People start to push their ethical boundaries. It's easy to give in to pressure, especially from superiors."
Cooper told of her experience running the internal audit department at WorldCom and detecting a discrepancy in the company's third-quarter results. Her book, Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower, is due out next month.
Cooper stayed with WorldCom for two years before resigning from her position in 2004. Since then, she has started her own consulting business, specializing in consulting and training in internal audit, internal controls, governance and ethics.
"There were times that I was literally scared to death and I had to find a way to push forward through my fear," she said. "What is legal and what is ethical is sometimes the same and sometimes very different."
Most whistleblowers, she said, leave the company within one year. Staying on board for the sake of her staff and the ongoing depositions, she said, "was one of the toughest times I've gone through."
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