Whistleblowers and Their Rights

Whistleblowers play a critical role in protecting the American worker from safety violations and financial exploitation from their employers. They also promote corporate transparency and provide consumers with critical information about the actions of the companies they patronize.

Without whistleblowers’ effort, hundreds of thousands of employees would face discrimination and other unfair practices in their workplaces with no accountability from their employers. Individuals at all points in the economy would be affected, from manufacturers and suppliers to the consumer. In cases where the company violates the Environmental Protection Act or other environmental laws, victims can also include plant life, wild and domestic animals, and even human lives.

Whistleblowers provide the balance that the American labor market needs by reporting instances of exploitation, fraud and illegal activities. Sherron Watkins, the former Vice President of Corporate Development at Enron Corporation, is a famous example of an influential whistleblower. In 2001, she exposed the company’s history of accounting fraud to the company’s CEO, then later testified about her report to the United States Senate and House of Representatives. This report ultimately played a role in the creation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.

Who is a Whistleblower?

A whistleblower is an employee who exposes his or her company’s wrongdoing to its industry’s regulatory board, the public, or to law enforcement. This can be any type of wrongdoing – criminal activity, labor law violations, health and safety violations or any type of fraud committed against employees or the public.

For example, when an employee finds his or her company violating environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act or the Environmental Protection Act, he or she is responsible for reporting the violation to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If the violation is an act of securities or accounting fraud, the correct regulatory authority is the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC).

Each authority and regulatory board has its own procedure for reporting company violations. If you are unsure about how to report your company’s violation or the correct authority to which to report the violation, discuss your claim with an employment attorney. He or she can determine where you need to file your claim and guide you through the process of filing and pursuing it.

What Should I Know Before Acting as a Whistleblower?

Know your rights. As an American employee, you have the right to file a whistleblower claim without fear of retaliation from your employer. Filing a whistleblower claim is one of the protected activities listed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws.

Know that if you plan to file a whistleblower claim, you need to provide evidence of the alleged wrongdoing. After you file your claim, the regulatory authority with which you filed it will conduct an investigation of your company to uncover the violation. Any evidence you provide will play a role in this investigation.

Do not publicize your claim until you have taken the correct legal steps to report it. By going to the press or spreading information about your employer over the Internet without making an official whistleblower claim, you can jeopardize your right to legal protection against retaliation. Be smart about your claim – this is not the time to attempt to “get revenge” on your employer.

After you file your claim, your attorney will advise you about what to discuss openly and what you should keep to yourself while the investigation is pending.

OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program

OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has a program in place to protect whistleblowers. This program exists to enforce more than 20 different whistleblower protection statutes, many of which are industry-specific. OSHA has protected whistleblowers since the passage of the Occupational Safety Health (OSH) Act of 1970.

If you are aware of illegal, unethical or unsafe behavior happening at your company, OSHA’s whistleblower protection program is in place to protect your right to report this behavior to the proper authority. Do not allow yourself to be bullied out of reporting the wrongdoings you witness. You have the right to stand up against discriminatory, unfair and unsafe workplace policies you endure in your workplace, as well as any fraud you witness. You also have the responsibility to stand up for your colleagues and future employees of your company who may face these issues.

Facing Retaliation for Whistleblowing

Many whistleblowers find themselves facing retaliation after they report their employers’ unethical or illegal behavior. You, too, might find yourself out of a job, demoted or facing harassment at work after you take a stand against your employer. Retaliation is defined as any behavior committed against an employer to “punish” him or her for taking legal action against the company.

You have the right to fight back against retaliation from your employer. If you face retaliation after acting as a whistleblower, contact an experienced employment attorney right away to determine if you have grounds for a retaliation claim. Do not do anything that can jeopardize your potential retaliation claim, such as making a threat to an individual or group of employees or attempting to defame the company in any way. The EEOC’s list of protected activities is in place for individuals filing retaliation claims as well as for whistleblowers. Follow your attorney’s instructions for filing your claim on time and avoiding any action that could void your right to a claim.

Document everything you experience at work that feels like retaliation. This can include comments from colleagues or supervisors, meetings and projects you are left out of, promotions for which you are passed over despite being well qualified for the higher position, and any instances of changed or lessened responsibilities after your whistleblower claim. Your retaliation claim will need to be filed with the EEOC, which will then open an investigation of your company and determine if retaliatory behavior has occurred. If so, you might be offered a settlement amount for your economic losses that resulted from the retaliation. If not, you might need to resolve your issue in court through litigation.