Featured case: Through the Eyes of a Whistle-Blower

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The case

Who – the protagonists

Sherry Hunt, Vice President and Chief Underwriter at CitiMortgage. Raised in rural Michigan, she had built a long and successful career in the mortgage business, priding herself on working hard and following the rules.

What?

Citigroup was a multinational financial services company. It was the sixth largest residential lender in the United States in 2004 (when Sherry Hunt joined) and rapidly growing.

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Why?

The company bought billions of dollars in mortgage loans from external lenders that did not meet Citi credit policy and sold them to government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The loans were defective and likely to default. Citi had also approved hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of defective mortgages files for US Federal Housing Administration insurance.

When?compmoney

By 2007, Citigroup executives were being warned about a serious lack of compliance and a breakdown in internal controls that could lead to severe financial losses for the organisation. By 2011, Sherry had been witnessing fraud at Citi for a number of years. Her efforts to rectify the situation included regular reports about mortgage defects to her superiors and anonymous tips on the FBI’s and Department of Housing and Urban Development’s websites.

newyorkWhere?

Citigroup was based in Manhattan, New York.

Key quotestock

‘How many nail technicians to you know who make $10,000 a month? Think about the number of manicures a technician would need to do to earn that amount, and that’s when your mind starts telling you this doesn’t make any sense.’ – Sherry Hunt

What next?

On the night of 22 March 2011, after Citi Executive Jeffery Polkinghorne had threatened her in the conference room – insisting that she change her reports – Sherry Hunt lay awake in bed. For almost a year she had applied for hundreds of other jobs across the country to no avail. She had sold her horses, even sold her truck. She was ready to leave Citi and move in an instant, but there was nowhere to go. The time had finally come. She had to take a stand. But who should she go to, and what should she say?

 
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Through the Eyes of a Whistle-Blower: How Sherry Hunt Spoke Up About CitiBank’s Mortgage Fraud
Ref K5-214-256

Teaching note
Ref K5-214-256TN

The authors
Authors

Adam Waytz and Vasilia Kilibarda

Adam and Vasilia discuss their case which won the United Nations Global Compact PRME Outstanding Case Study on Anti-Corruption 2014.

Whistle-blower role models

Alt textAdam: The little research that exists about whistle-blowing tends simply to show the perils of blowing the whistle. Therefore, it is extremely valuable to ‘step into the shoes’ of someone like Sherry Hunt who has blown the whistle effectively. We wanted to give our students the opportunity to do exactly that.

Vasilia: When we stumbled upon a Bloomberg article about Sherry Hunt, we thought the richness and complexity of her story would make the perfect example for students to dive into. She graciously agreed to contribute to what she felt was a good cause: educating future business leaders.

Bringing the story to life

Vasilia: During our interviews with Sherry, we asked her questions about how she felt during this period of time – what worried her, what trade-offs she was weighing in her mind, and what motivated her. Relevant and meaningful details help bring a story to life in a reader’s mind – just like reading about a character in a novel!  Conversely, it’s important to be selective about the information you include as too many details can drown and disengage the reader.

Combating unethical behaviourcompmoney

Adam: We identified characteristics that contributed to a culture in which unethical behaviour could thrive at Citibank. These can exist anywhere, and various steps can be taken to create environments that don’t foster such behaviour:

  • Create clear reporting procedures in your organisation’s whistle-blowing policy so employees know who to go to.
  • Minimise the physical and psychological distance between leaders and employees.
  • Use mission statements and incentives to reinforce your organisation’s values.
  • Cultivate a culture that is open to dissent. 
  • Require senior leadership to embody your organisation’s values. (Research shows that leaders who are perceived as ethical have organisations that prosper.)

Unique video material

Vasilia: One great thing about this case is the videos that accompany it, which instructors have access to on Vimeo. These are the only on-camera interviews Sherry Hunt has ever given, and she did so because she believed in the importance of future business leaders learning from her experience. Seeing and hearing from Sherry herself is a great way to engage students during class discussion. It’s the next best thing to having her as a guest speaker in your classroom!

About the authors

Adam Waytz  is Associate Professor of Management and Organization
at Kellogg School of Management
e a-waytz@kellogg.northwestern.edu

Vasilia Kilibarda is Manager of Case Writing at Kellogg School of Management.
e v-kilibarda@kellogg.northwestern.edu

 

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