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What You Need to Know Before Becoming a Whistleblower

Wouldn't it be lovely if employers rewarded employees for helping to ensure that business is in compliance with the law? Unfortunately, too many employers would rather not spend the money to keep up with health and safety standards, or be caught when they are guilty of wage theft. In other words, your boss might consider whistleblowers a nuisance.

(Photo Credit: stevendepolo/Flickr)

Whistleblowing is an important service to your fellow employees, to the success of the business, and sometimes may keep the employer out of jail. Before you blow the whistle, however, please understand how to protect yourself from retaliation from unappreciative bosses and employers.

Protection From Retaliation

The United States Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration enforces the Whistleblower Protection Program. If you complain, or "blow the whistle," to a government agency about law breaking at your place of business, you are protected from discrimination and retaliation for blowing the whistle. In order to enjoy these protections, you must complain to a government agency.

If you point out to your manager or your employer that they are breaking the law, and they demote you or fire you in response, you have no legal claim. You are only protected from discrimination and retaliation if you complain to a government agency.

Our very own Leah Arnold Smeets makes some salient points when she encourages employees to offer ideas for improvement and to go so far as to "dare to disagree." It is true that some employers value an employee's ingenuity and recognize when employees go out of their way to help improve the business.

Sometimes managers use inefficient routines or structures. Sometimes it is beneficial to change or rewrite job descriptions. Employees who care about the success of the business may well be rewarded for risking arguing for changes and improvements. However, whistleblowing usually refers to pointing out that laws are being broken.

When Laws Get Broken

If you give your employer the benefit of the doubt and tell him quietly that he is guilty of wage theft, over time violations, health and safety violations, or other violations of any laws governing his business, you are not protected from retaliation. If you have incorrectly predicted his response, and instead of appreciating your diligence, he resents your efforts, you are not protected from his retaliation.

The Whistleblowers Protection Program protects employees who complain to the Department of Labor from being retaliated against in the following ways: 

  • Firing or laying off; 
  • Blacklisting; 
  • Demoting, denying overtime or promotion;
  • Disciplining;
  • Denial of benefits;
  • Failure to hire or rehire;
  • Intimidation;
  • Making threats;
  • Reassignment affecting prospects for promotion; and
  • Reducing pay or hours.

Anonymity

Often, complainees are able to keep their identities private. You may need to tell the government agency who you are, but the government agency does not have to tell your employer who complained.

If you complain to a government agency and your employer thinks it was you and retaliates against you, you now have an additional retaliation claim. If your employer is breaking the law, you may complain to the appropriate government agency to protect yourself and to help your coworkers enjoy a safe and legal work environment. Your employer should thank you, whether he does or doesn't.

California

The state of California is expanding its whistleblower protection laws for 2014. SB 494 expands the definition of whistleblowers to include employees whose duties include the disclosure of legal compliance information. Technically, these employees were not covered under whistleblower protection laws before.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever "blown the whistle" at work? What happened? Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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