I’m a bank whistleblower. If you don’t know what that means, google it. You’ll notice the first auto-fill suggestion in Google for the search term “whistleblower” is “whistleblower found dead.” It’s an obscure fact I think about every day of my life because the retaliation against those of us who choose to blow the whistle is both swift and brutal. Surviving this retaliation is something they didn’t teach in school, so I had to learn on my own.
What Is a Whistleblower?
The term whistleblower was coined by Ralph Nadar in the 1970’s in order to liken us to referees blowing the whistle on a foul, as opposed to the negative connotations of informants, traitors, stool pigeons, and snitches. The different terminology is used by different parties to rally support for or against whistleblowers. If you look up government whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the terminology used is important because it means life or death in court, on the streets, and in jail, all of which I’ve seen due to my efforts.
A whistleblower chooses to speak up about wrongdoing within an organization for the greater good of humanity, whereas snitches, et al. speak up for the greater good of themselves. Despite this difference, whistleblowing is stigmatizing. I was blacklisted by the banking and insurance industries for choosing to reveal systematic fraud in collateral loan tracking and a financial product called force-placed insurance.
How to Become a Whistleblower
Business ethics in the real world is much more complicated than my Business Ethics class led me to believe. Not every whistleblower has to walk the path I have, nor does every organization discourage whistleblowing. In fact, many companies are attempting to encourage more ethics in their businesses by incorporating slogans such as “If you see something, say something” into the work culture.
You don’t need to become the office tattle-tale who points out every time a coworker is late from lunch or texting. Reporting these minor infractions may strengthen your personal ties with the boss (or you may end up annoying them), but they do nothing to help society as a whole. Stopping your company from dumping hazardous waste into a nearby river or fraudulently kicking honest people out of their homes for profit, however, is a vital service to mankind.
Whistleblowers typically try resolving the issue internally first, giving the organization a chance to correct the issue. An honest organization will fix the problem, whereas a corrupt one will immediately attempt to silence the whistleblower. This is the point where you must choose whether or not to fight at the expense of your career and possibly your life. It’s a terrifying choice, and most people obviously choose their personal safety.
I decided the fight was worth it, so I continued whistleblowing externally, leaking information to the media and working with both State and Federal financial and insurance regulators. Each of these government regulators used my information to help reform Wall Street, fueling civil class actions and fines against the banks but left me completely unprotected.
Surviving as a Whistleblower
There are resources out there to help whistleblowers. The Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit organization that provides legal aide, protection, and advocacy to both government and corporate whistleblowers. As a nonprofit, the group is often overbooked and can only pursue the most financially viable cases. Thankfully, both Wikileaks and Anonymous are filled with veteran whistleblowers like myself, willing to help guide those who choose to blow the whistle toward the media, attorneys, government regulators, and others who can provide assistance.
Each time I contacted one of these organizations, I was told to keep my head down in order to survive, but I already lost everything and couldn’t stay quiet. Having experienced whistleblower retaliation firsthand, I choose instead to continue talking in order to help any other whistleblower who ever ended up in my position.
If not for the Internet, I would have ended up as just one more whistleblower found dead. Instead I found moral support through the Anons of social media and gained employment online, writing for a variety of business and financial publications. When the banking industry tried silencing me, I only got louder. When they tried burying my data leak, I created my own blog on my own domain, linking to it from every reputable publication I write for to ensure it outlasts any of their SEO efforts against me.
I’m no hero – I’m an ordinary person just like you who saw something wrong and chose to act to correct it. That decision changed my entire life, and I never once regretted it. I still have the same life you have. I have a career, bills, friends, and family. But more important than that, I have a voice that changed the world we live in more than any vote I ever cast or rally I ever attended.
I am a whistleblower, and I hope you choose to be one too.
Brian Penny is a former business analyst and operations manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work has been featured in the Huffington Post, Main Street, Fast Company, BBC, and more.