The Crucial Work Ahead: Building Ethical Corporate Cultures

Jordan Thomas -

In our ongoing work to protect individual whistleblowers and bring wrongdoing to light, we never lose sight of our fundamental goal: to help establish a culture in which corporations no longer retaliate against those who raise concerns about misconduct.

I was reminded of the importance of communicating this goal while serving as a panelist at the Thomson Reuters 4th Annual Corporate Whistleblowing Forum last Fall. In a recent article highlighting our session, the author noted that whistleblower lawsuits are bringing hard truths to light about the weakness of existing compliance programs. As I noted on the panel, building a culture of strong ethics begins with establishing consistent communication and support to employees who raise concerns. As we gain greater understanding of the challenges faced by whistleblowers, most of whom report wrongdoing internally first, companies have a responsibility, as well as an opportunity, to create corporate cultures in which compliance and ethics are integral to operations.

Protecting whistleblowers is not only about catching bad actors, but also about revolutionizing the way in which we view corporate ethics. As recent history has taught us, corporate misconduct can do more than alter the basic bottom line—it can lead to devastating consequences for individuals, companies, and society at large.


Labaton Sucharow Whistleblower Tips SEC in Groundbreaking Enforcement Action

Jordan Thomas -

Today, the SEC announced that two J.P. Morgan wealth management subsidiaries agreed to pay $267 million to settle charges in an enforcement action initiated by information brought to the SEC by a Labaton Sucharow client, a J.P. Morgan executive. The enforcement is one of the largest and highest profile actions initiated by an SEC whistleblower since the establishment of the program.

The SEC’s investigation uncovered that J.P. Morgan’s investment advisory business and its nationally chartered bank were steering clients to more expensive in-house investments without proper disclosures of conflicts of interests. The troubling actions in this case occurred over several years, and deprived JPMorgan's clients of necessary information to make informed investment decisions.

This case powerfully demonstrates the vast potential of the SEC Whistleblower Program to find and eradicate wrongdoing early and often. Because of the unique protections and incentives of the program, our client chose to report the securities violations at J.P. Morgan to the SEC. In doing so, the individual was able to protect J.P. Morgan clients and improve the sales culture of the organization, while avoiding retaliation and blacklisting.

And as awareness of the SEC Whistleblower Program grows, so does the likelihood that more individuals will step forward to reveal violations. The program’s broad international reach and ability to report anonymously provide enormous opportunities to uncover misconduct wherever it occurs. In designing this innovative program, the SEC understood that employees represent a critical first line of defense against wrongdoing. To learn more about the SEC Whistleblower Program, please see here.

Strong E&C Programs: New Report Examines Key Characteristics

Jordan Thomas -

Working at the forefront of whistleblower advocacy, we have previously discussed the numerous ways companies hinder or actively retaliate against individuals who choose to bring corporate misconduct to light. In fact, according to the Ethics and Compliance Initiative’s National Business Ethics Survey, more than 1 in 5 respondents said they experienced retaliation after reporting internally. We also continue to witness companies developing new and sophisticated strategies to discourage employees from reporting possible violations.

To be sure, though, the majority of companies want to behave ethically, and are potentially stymied by antiquated internal policies or a lack of guidance regarding appropriate and effective compliance measures.

As part of its continued dedication to improving the current state of corporate ethics, last week the ECI released a new report which examines key characteristics of high-quality compliance and ethics programs. According to the report, common practices of organizations with strong ethics and compliance cultures include:

  • Creating an environment in which employees are encouraged and able to speak up. Management in such organizations not only offers ample opportunity for employees to voice concerns, but also takes retaliation seriously through actively engaged HR, legal and compliance departments.
  • Acting quickly and maintaining accountability when misconduct occurs. These organizations develop a plan of action in which suspicions are thoroughly investigated, and confirmed misconduct leads to consistent consequences, regardless of the employee’s position.

  • Treating compliance programs as central to business strategy. Misconduct poses dire business risks. As a result, an organization that is serious about ethics will ensure that the compliance department is not only responsible for meeting legal requirements, but also works to help management understand and establish integrity to benefit the organization’s overall mission.

It is apparent that companies must demonstrate greater leadership in building ethical cultures, and we applaud the focus and continued work by the ECI to help advance this goal. In our ongoing effort to root out misconduct in the workplace, the ECI’s report provides a solid foundation of principles and practices on which we can continue to build.


SEC Stakes Ground: Internal Reporting Triggers Whistleblower Protections

Jordan Thomas -
In addition to the case we described in an earlier post, in which the Commission filed an amicus brief on behalf of an internal whistleblower, in a significant move to protect whistleblowers at large, this month the SEC issued interpretive guidance to clarify that Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provisions apply equally to those whistleblowers who report potential violations internally.

The SEC’s expansive view on whistleblower protections essentially confirms that to qualify for Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation protections, a whistleblower may report potential violations to the SEC directly or internally through an employer’s compliance channels. According to the SEC, the clarification “avoids a two-tiered structure of employment retaliation protection that might discourage some individuals from first reporting internally in appropriate circumstances and, thus, jeopardize the investor-protection and law-enforcement benefits that can result from internal reporting.”

While many organizations work hard to build credible ethical cultures, over the last few years, we have witnessed increasing efforts by some organizations to dismantle and deter the landmark reforms of Dodd-Frank. Indeed, through the use of secrecy agreements, legal bullying, and the creation of omerta cultures, some companies aggressively discourage whistleblowers from reporting misconduct.

This must stop.

Last year, we, along with the Government Accountability Project and 250 other organizations, submitted a petition urging the SEC to, among other things, engage in rule-making to clarify and strengthen whistleblower protections. By issuing this guidance on internal reporting, the SEC has sent a clear message that it will do just that. We applaud this action by the SEC and its clear aim to protect and encourage whistleblowers.

SEC Sides With Corporate Whistleblower on Key Issue of Protection

Jordan Thomas -
In an important case for whistleblower advocacy, last week, the SEC filed an amicus brief in California federal court contending that employees need not report misconduct directly to the government to qualify for whistleblower protection under Dodd-Frank. The underlying case involves a lawsuit filed by the former general counsel of Bio-Rad Technologies Inc. who claimed that he was terminated after voicing concerns about potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The company ultimately paid $55 million to settle the SEC’s charges.

While courts have generally sided with the SEC holding that a whistleblower need not report misconduct directly to a government agency to qualify for the anti-retaliation protections afforded by Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley, in 2013, a federal appeals court ruled the other way. In all likelihood, the question of what triggers whistleblower protections will be an issue of ongoing debate in the courts that may go to the highest court in the land.

In many ways, this case and those like it are almost academic battles that will ultimately establish key legal precedent. So what’s a whistleblower to do? The key takeaway from the Bio-Rad matter is that individuals who wish to report misconduct would be wise to consider an early or simultaneous report to the SEC to assure eligibility for the protections guaranteed by statute to all whistleblowers.  Even a cursory filing of original information may be sufficient. In the long run, corporate compliance programs are a critical first line of defense against corporate wrongdoing. But for those defenses to work, whistleblowers must be encouraged and protected when they use them.

Historic Survey Sounds the Alarm: We’re Losing the Ethical Battle, Wall Street

Jordan Thomas -
Together with the University of Notre Dame, today we released the findings of a collaborative and historic survey of financial services professionals across the U.S. and UK. The Street, The Bull and The Crisis is the most expansive analysis of its kind, probing the ethical views of a broad spectrum of the industry, from young professionals to senior executives, investment bankers, and investment managers, from San Francisco to Scotland.

Despite sweeping reform efforts and headline-making consequences of corporate misconduct, the findings make clear that attitudes toward corruption within the industry have not changed for the better. Indeed, nearly half those polled find it likely that their competitors have engaged in misconduct in order to gain an edge in the market. On an individual level, 32 percent of professionals with less than a decade in the business would engage in insider trading if they could get away with it. That’s twice the figure (14 percent) for employees with more than two decades in the industry. What does this mean for the future of the industry and how will it impact the fragile confidence of investors?

We are most concerned by findings relating to the widespread use of secrecy policies and agreements—a full 25 percent of individuals earning $500,000+ per annum have been asking to sign a confidentiality agreement that would prohibit reporting illegal or unethical activities to the authorities. As federal agencies and Congress has made clear, corporate entities cannot obstruct an individual’s fundamental right to freely engage with his or her government.

For more information on our findings, please see the full report here or see select highlights in this infographic.

An Untenable Silence: Confidentiality Agreements Examined & Exposed

Jordan Thomas -

Yesterday, the SEC announced a landmark enforcement action against engineering giant KBR for its use of confidentiality agreements that required individuals to obtain prior approval from the company’s legal department before discussing matters with outside parties…or face discipline and possible termination. This action sends a powerful message to companies that have sought to silence whistleblowers. Indeed, the proliferation of gag orders is a scourge on corporate culture, a threat to financial reform, if not democracy itself.

We have been at the forefront of advocacy efforts to protect truth tellers and, by extension, encourage open and transparent cultures at organizations across the United States and abroad. Last summer, I addressed the dangers of these gag orders in an article I drafted  together with the Government Accountability project for the New York Times Dealbook. The op-ed followed on the heels of our work to assemble a coalition of organizations, which represented millions of citizens, petitioning the SEC to address the issue of silencing and retaliating against employees who speak out against wrongdoing. 

In addition to these grassroots efforts, we have also addressed the more substantive issues at play in such employment agreements. In a recent article in the ABA Journal of Labor & Employment Law, the authoritative publication for workplace issues, together with Professor Richard Moberly and fellow attorney Jason Zuckerman, I examine the legality and enforceability of employment agreements that effectively undermine the crucial investor protection efforts established by the Dodd-Frank Act.

We remain steadfast in our belief that in this country, individuals have an unwaivable right to report wrongdoing to the government. And we will continue our work to protect this right and those courageous individuals who stand up to corruption.

Historic Year for Whistleblowers, Report Confirms

Jordan Thomas -
The SEC Office of the Whistleblower has just released its report to Congress chronicling the program’s success over the last year. The data is extremely encouraging, serving as an apt reminder that a quiet revolution in law enforcement is underway, powered by whistleblowers who dare to speak out against misconduct. Highlights from this year’s report include 3,620 whistleblower tips - an increase of more than 20% in the number of tips in just two years. The SEC made 9 whistleblower awards in FY2014, the largest of which exceeded $30 million. The balance of the Investor Protection Fund at the close of the fiscal year was an astonishing $437 million! Tips came in from every state in the union and 60 countries, including a significant number of submissions from the UK, India, Canada and China. The report also highlighted the Agency’s new muscle, flexed in its case against Paradigm Capital (where I represented the whistleblower), in which the SEC used its new authority to bring anti-retaliation cases against entities seeking to undermine whistleblowers.

Top Lawmakers Urge SEC to Protect Whistleblowers

Jordan Thomas -
This week, eight leading Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform and House Financial Services Committees sent a letter to SEC Chair Mary Jo White calling on the Commission to ensure corporations do not enact measures meant to stymie whistleblowers. The letter pointed to a recent Washington Post article, which outlined numerous ways companies have restricted employees from reporting misconduct.

The letter echoes concerns that we, along with the Government Accountability Project, first raised in a July Op-Ed in the New York Times DealBook. Along with GAP and 250 other organizations, we have submitted a petition, urging the SEC to hold a series of hearings around the country to discuss the problem of workplace retaliation and explore new ways to increase reporting, internally and externally. It also asks the agency to create an advisory committee on whistleblower reporting and protection; to recommend program improvements and best practices; and engage in appropriate rule-making to clarify and strengthen whistleblower protections. This is a serious issue and we are glad Congress has taken notice of our efforts.

Please feel free to view the petition here - and, as always, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns.

The Best Way to Honor Whistleblowers on National Whistleblower Appreciation Day? Do More to Protect Them

Jordan Thomas -
In recognition of National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, coming up on July 30, we were asked to contribute a guest post on the Government Accountability Project’s website, which can be found here. GAP is the nation’s leading non-profit, non-partisan whistleblower protection and advocacy organization, which helps expose wrongdoing to the public and actively promotes government and corporate accountability. Since its founding in 1977, GAP has represented over 5,000 whistleblowers in the court of law and in the court of public opinion, including hundreds of whistleblowers who have reported financial misconduct.

Now, we are partnering with GAP and a growing coalition, representing more than 250 organizations and nearly two million citizens, to urge the SEC to take action to protect SEC whistleblowers from retaliation and other attempts by employers to restrict their employees’ rights to participate in the SEC Whistleblower Program. We believe that this important effort will help protect and strengthen the SEC Whistleblower Program. For more information or to get involved, please click here.