Charles Alford has seen intimidation strategies in various shapes and forms. The professor at the University of Maryland is the author of the book "Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power", which portrays the battle of the individual against mighty organizations. Alford says that "the main objective is to discredit the whistleblower in an effort to diminish his or her credibility."
Typical strategies against opposing employees include isolation, exclusion from meetings, and assignment to tasks for which they are over-or under-qualified. "Organizations do not care about winning the battle. They care about creating a prime example to scare off future whistleblowers”, he says.
Michael Winston is a great example of this. The member of the Board of Directors of Countrywide discovered massive fraud in 2005. Winston reported the matter internally in the hope to solve the issue quickly, especially given the fact that he was known to be a trusted adviser to top management.
However, he did not receive any support and matters got worse. In 2006 he was asked to misstate information to the rating agency Moody's. Winston refused to cooperate and faced isolation and mobbing in return.
One day before Winston and his team were supposed to present a new strategy, the project was called off. "I had to inform my staff that they would no longer work for me. That was painful given that some of these people especially moved to the west coast for me." The team shrank from 200 to two employees and he was forced to relocate several times. "I changed office locations 9 times in 18 months", Winston explains.
In 2008, Countrywide was taken over by Bank of America. Winston remembers that they "supposedly forgot to invite me" to the first meeting with the new CEO. Shortly after Winston was let go.
Retaliation against whistleblowers is against the law, which is why Winston chose to sue the bank. "The bank defrauded employees, home-owners, shareholders, and tax payers", says Winston, who expected to win his trail in court. Instead, he found himself in a massive legal battle that would destroy his worldview forever.
"Management lied repeatedly under oath, documents were forged, and legal officials were bribed", according to Winston. Still, the jury voted overwhelmingly in his favor in 2011 and awarded him 3.8 million dollars in compensation.
The media called Winston a hero, but the tides turned quickly: Two years later, the verdict was reversed by the Appellate Court although there was no new evidence. Winston was not even invited to the hearing. Even worse: "The Appellate Court re-evaluated the evidence and disregarded the verdict of the jury, which voted with overwhelming majority in my favor", says Winston. He refers to two eminent lawyers, who confirm the court has overstepped its competencies. Until this day Winston has not seen any of the 3.8 million dollars.
Winston used to be a popular executive and leader with guest appearances at INSEAD and Harvard a couple of years ago. Yet after that legal battle his belief system was shattered but he says he is still fighting for justice. "I always defined myself through work", he says as he is looking for a new career. Bank of America states that they are "satisfied with the verdict of the Appellate Court."*