When employees become aware that the company they work for is breaking the law, it can be hard to know what to do. Most people will start by going to their immediate supervisor, and possibly higher. In many cases where the violation was careless rather than intentional, this will be enough to fix the issue. But what can you do when you realize that your employer has no intention of doing anything about the violation?
The next step is to go outside your company to a government agency. This is a step many employees can be reluctant to take. Many are justifiably concerned about their employer’s reaction and are hesitant to put their jobs on the line.
To protect employees who want to do the right thing, the federal government has put in place certain important legal protections for whistleblowers who alert the government to issues such as fraud. Typically, a federal law that regulates a particular industry or a specific aspect of an industry also contains provisions for protecting those who report a violation of this law. For example, the Occupational Health and Safety Act includes a provision forbidding retaliation against an employee who reports practices that result in safety violations.
Who is protected?
You do not have to be a full-time employee to be protected by whistleblower statutes. Generally, protection is also extended to part-time employees, contractors and corporate officers. It is important to know that lawful conduct is protected, but your employer may have a right to penalize you for unlawful conduct. For example, breaking into private property while trying to get information can legitimately get you in trouble.
Types of illegal retaliation
Unlawful retaliation can take several forms. In addition to getting fired, whistleblowers may find themselves demoted, suspended or excluded from opportunities. They may also experience serious harassment as a tactic to get them to quit.
Options for recovery
An employee who is the victim of retaliation can sue the employer to get reinstated, obtain back pay and receive compensation for certain types of damages that resulted from the retaliation. Some employers may try to get around retaliation statutes by inserting a waiver of whistleblower protection into the employment contract. In many cases, this waiver is not valid, so even if you have signed a contract that includes this clause, you have not given up your right to sue for retaliation.
It is important for whistleblowers to know that they are not at the mercy of employers who want to punish them for doing the right thing. If you are thinking about reporting an employer’s fraud or other legal violation, consulting an experienced attorney can help you protect yourself more effectively.