Most corporate whistle-blowers will never score a book tour. Yes, Time magazine helped make a few famous by declaring them heroes in a big cover story last year. And one of those people, Enron's Sherron Watkins, has actually gone on to sell a stack of autographed copies of her tell-all,
Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron . But workers who expose corporate misdeeds don't normally end up with a listing on Amazon.com. Instead, many find that straying from the company line ends up derailing their once-promising careers. In an age of rising worries about ethical business practices, some observers call it troubling that dissent is still being suppressed -- and caution that investors could again wind up paying the price. "Retaliation is a serious problem," says Stephen Meagher, a San Francisco attorney who represents whistle-blowers in health care. "People try to do the right thing, and they get squelched. It happens all the time." Meagher should know. For years, his clients have been protected by laws that specifically shield, and even reward, people who report abuses of Medicare and other government programs through the False Claims Act. Spurred on by calamities such as those at Enron and WorldCom, the new Sarbanes-Oxley Act extends similar protection -- though without the financial incentives -- to corporate whistle-blowers outside the health care world. Under the new law, publicly traded companies face harsh penalties for retaliating against employees who expose corporate shenanigans. Some experts believe managers will now respond with sweeping policy changes like those last seen when sexual harassment took center stage a decade ago. But Meagher has watched similar laws fail to protect his clients already. And noted academic C. Fred Alford remains skeptical that any law can weaken powerful corporations bent on keeping secrets. "The goal of any organization is to eliminate the disruptive effect of the ethical individual," says Alford, a University of Maryland political science professor who wrote the book Whistleblower: Broken Lives and Organizational Power . "Organizations are basically amoral."