Inside prison, snitches get stitches.
Outside prison, people who report dangerous, unethical or illegal actions by their employers get harassed, isolated, demoted, blackballed, bullied into resigning or fired.
So we take it as a positive sign Monday's announcement by the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had punished an Albany hedge fund advisory firm with retaliating against an employee who had reported prohibited trading activity to the federal agency.
According to the SEC, the former head trader of Paradigm Capital Management reported a conflict of interest to the SEC, after which the employee was removed from his head trader position, forced to investigate the matter he had reported to the SEC, had his job function changed and supervisory tasks removed and subject to actions that “otherwise marginalized him.”
As a result of engaging in the improper transactions and retaliating against the employee, the company was hit with a $2 million fine, the first such penalty imposed under new whistleblower legislation enacted in 2011. It's small consolation to the whistleblower for what he went through, but it's a positive development for the people who follow him.
Another positive development this week came from the state Attorney General's office, which on Wednesday announced it had ordered the owner of a McDonald's franchise in the Rochester area to pay an employee $10,000 as compensation for company retaliation. The employee was fired last April after he called the fire department to report a gas leak in the restaurant where he worked. He called 911 after his bosses failed to heed his warnings about the leak, which was serious enough to close the restaurant.
And in perhaps the most significant development of the week, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a ruling handed down Thursday, sided with an Alabama community college employee against his bosses. The employee was fired in 2009 after he reported a no-show job involving a state legislator and later testified in the representative's trial on mail fraud and theft.
The high court found in Lane v. Franks that the employee was acting "as a citizen on a matter of public concern," and that he was therefore protected by the First Amendment to speak about what he observed.
The ruling could help hone the legal parameters for how employers treat whistleblowers in the future.
Part of the problem with overcoming retaliation against whistleblowers is the stigma attached to the entire concept of whistleblowing. We've been brought up since childhood to chastise "tattle-tales." Assigning terms like "rat" or "stool-pigeon" or "nark" or "snitch" not only empowers companies to retaliate, but also discourages people from coming forward, even if they don't fear for their livelihoods.
Another problem is that companies expect and demand loyalty from their employees. Employees who violate that loyalty by sharing the company's dirty laundry with the authorities are generally frowned upon by both their bosses and their co-workers.
Matters like the Edward Snowden affair further cloud the line between honest whistleblowing and the unacceptable actions of a disgruntled employee. While Snowden performed a great public service by alerting the public and Congress to NSA spying on ordinary Americans, he also potentially threatened national security by taking secret documents and revealing secrets about how the U.S. conducts international affairs. Is he a heroic whistleblower or a national traitor? It's not exactly clear.
What should be clear, however, is that the events of the past week are evidence the country is becoming less tolerant of unethical or illegal behavior and is becoming more willing to punish those who retaliate against people just for telling the truth.
In the end, the right people got punished. And the country is a little better off because of it.