Help! I’m Being Instructed to Do Illegal Acts at Work

In the course of doing your assigned duties as an employee, you find yourself performing activities that you feel are unethical, maybe even illegal. For the sake of job security, you may even be hesitant to broach the subject with your employer. Rocking the boat, after all, could cost you your job. Consequently, many such instances go unreported by employees who fear losing their jobs if they come forward.

This sort of moral dilemma is not altogether uncommon in the workplace, and poses considerable risk to employees who are dependent on their jobs for income. Faced with the prospect that some aspect of your job duties may be illegal, you have to choose the proper course of action to resolve the issue. If you hope to keep your job, directly confronting your employer may not be the best route to take.

Whistleblower protection

There are federal – and some state – laws in place that protect employees from retaliation in cases like this, known as whistleblower laws. That term may sound extreme for situations where the lines of legality of the actions you’ve been instructed to take aren’t so clearly drawn, but the intent is nonetheless the same. These laws make it illegal for an employer to terminate an employee who has filed a claim or lodged a complaint against them.

The specific law(s) that would safeguard an employee from retaliation for refusal to participate in illegal activity will depend on two things: 1) the state in which the employee works, and 2) the nature of the illegal activity. Some states have specific laws protecting employees against retaliation based on whether the illegal action violates public policy, environmental or safety regulations, etc. In each case, the procedure for reporting the violation will vary according to the state where the employee works and the type of illegal activity he or she is reporting.

Wrongful termination

In addition to protection from discrimination based on race, gender, age, color, religion, nation of origin or disability, wrongful termination laws also protect employees from dismissal – or other forms of retaliation – for refusal to commit unlawful acts as a condition of employment. If you are instructed by your employer to do something that you believe is against the law, and refuse to follow those instructions, you can sue for wrongful discharge if your refusal leads to your dismissal.

Depending on the activity you’ve been instructed to engage in, you may need to report the activity to a specific federal or state agency. For instance, safety violations would need to be addressed to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Illegal dumping of chemicals, on the other hand, would need to be reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Where to get help

Due to the variance in state laws and the agencies that may need to be involved, your safest course of action would be to consult legal counsel familiar with the appropriate laws in the jurisdiction where you work. An attorney with experience in labor law will be able to help you file a timely report or claim, and represent you should you be subjected to any retaliatory actions including wrongful discharge by your employer.

If you’ve been asked to perform any duties as part of your job that you believe are illegal, you should consult a lawyer with an understanding of the applicable laws and how to file a report. Knowing your boss is asking you to break the law, you may not want to stay in their employment, but it’s still advisable to ensure that you follow the right procedure to protect your rights and any compensation that is due you whether you keep your job or are terminated.