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How To Be a Whistleblower and Keep Your Job

Many instances of corruption, waste, and fraud would go unnoticed and unpunished without whistleblowers. Whistleblowers have uncovered illegal activity, hazardous working conditions, toxic dumping, and more.

But coming forward can carry personal and professional risks, including employer reprisals. If you want to keep your job and be a whistleblower, you should know the risks and protections available to you.

State and Federal Whistleblower Protection Laws

Several state and federal laws protect whistleblowers. Whistleblowing is a legally protected activity.

For example, the False Claims Act allows individuals to bring lawsuits against those who defraud the government. The federal law awards whistleblowers a percentage of the money recovered. The law also forbids retaliation against whistleblowers.

Many other federal laws and federal agencies provide whistleblower protection.

The U.S. Department of Labor enforces whistleblower protections. The agency enforces workplace safety and labor standards, including wage and overtime laws. The Labor Department also enforces whistleblower protections under many federal employment laws. These include the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces more than 20 federal laws that offer whistleblower protection. One of those laws is the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). It sets safety and health standards for workplaces.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces anti-discrimination laws. These laws include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Equal Pay Act (EPA). These laws have anti-retaliation provisions.

Whistleblower protection is also available under state laws. California and New York have strong whistleblower protection laws. California's Whistleblower Protection Act protects state employees who report improper governmental activities. State authorities can't retaliate against employees or applicants who report misconduct.

Who Can Be a Whistleblower?

The definition of whistleblower is based on the applicable law. Most laws protect employees, former employees, and applicants. For example, the Whistleblower Protection Act covers former and current federal employees who report waste, fraud, and abuse within the federal government. Applicants are also covered under the law. The False Claims Act provides protection to private citizens who uncover instances of contractors defrauding the government. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) covers those who report securities fraud. The Clean Air Act protects those who report violations of air emissions standards.

What Types of Actions Are Protected?

Perhaps you haven't filed a formal report of wrongdoing, but you've voiced your concerns to a supervisor or helped someone else expose fraud. Will you be able to keep your job in those instances? Again, it depends on the law that applies to you.

Some laws require that you make an actual complaint to a government agency. Certain federal laws, like the Water Pollution Control Act, cover you for “filing, instituting, or testifying in proceedings." Others might protect you if your manager simply thought you were involved in a whistleblower action and retaliated against you for that reason.

On the other hand, to be protected, some state whistleblower laws require that you first report the unlawful activity to a supervisor. As you can see, whistleblower laws vary significantly regarding who and what types of actions are protected. For this reason, it's important to consult an experienced attorney before acting.

What if My Employer Is Retaliating Against Me for Whistleblowing?

Although you might simply be wondering how to be a whistleblower and not get fired, it's important to note that most whistleblower laws prohibit other forms of retaliation. An employer can't take negative employment actions against whistleblowers. These include adverse actions such as:

  • Demotions
  • Transfers
  • Pay cuts
  • Negative evaluations

Whether you're worried about losing your job or receiving a negative review, there are many whistleblower laws that protect you and hold your employer accountable. The process for filing a retaliation claim varies depending on the applicable law. Many private sector employees can file claims with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Most federal employees can file a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. An attorney can advise you on the applicable law's procedures and filing deadlines.

Tips for Whistleblowers

As you think about exposing wrongdoing, there are some tips to keep in mind.

  • When engaging in whistleblowing activities, don't use your employer's time or resources. For example, don't use the company's computers to send e-mail.
  • Don't take documents or access information to which you have no right.
  • Don't take documents indiscriminately. Only take what you need.
  • Document your work performance. Keep performance evaluations and any other communications about your job performance. Employers often defend their actions by claiming that disciplinary action was justified because the worker was doing subpar work.
  • Keep any communications between you and management. Keep all emails, texts, letters, notes, memos, and voicemails. This information might be important for your whistleblower retaliation case.
  • Document differences between your treatment and company policy.
  • Document everything that you think proves wrongful treatment. Save notes from meetings with your employer. Document conversations that show retaliation. As soon as possible, sit down and summarize the conversations. Sign and date the summary.
  • Keep a diary detailing adverse employment actions. Stay focused on the facts. Remember that your employer will have access to the diary if there's a lawsuit.

Contact an Attorney To Learn About Your Rights and the Whistleblower Process

American society relies on the courage of those who speak up about wrongdoing. But supervisors don't always see it that way. Retaliatory action and wrongful termination are possibilities. There are protections available to whistleblowers, but these protections depend on your circumstances. Contact a whistleblower attorney for legal advice on how to be a whistleblower and keep your job.

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