Introduction to Whistleblower Protections
Some employers will do anything to make a buck or to stretch a dollar as far as they can – even if it means jeopardizing their employees and/or the public. Companies have a general obligation to produce products for the public that are safe and free from defects. When companies cut corners, defects in design or manufacturing can arise and cause people to be injured or even killed. (Consider, for example, some of the auto recalls announced over the past few years.) Often, the first indication that a company engaged in improper or illegal cost-saving measures is the report of a person who is injured or killed as a result of using the company’s product. However, in some cases a “whistleblower” can shed light on a company’s illicit and dangerous activities before a tragic incident occurs. To encourage more employees within the federal government (many states also have whistleblower protection laws to protect state and private employees) to speak up when illegal, unsafe, or dangerous activities are taking place, federal law provides certain protections to “whistleblowers.”
Who are “Whistleblowers” and Why Do They Need Protection?
Generally speaking, a whistleblower is an employee working for a particular agency or employer who reports an unsafe or dangerous condition at work to the proper authorities for investigation and appropriate remedial action. For example, consider an
auto manufacturing plant wherein a vehicle is being manufactured in such a way that the gas tank of the car is liable to explode if the vehicle is struck at a certain angle. An employee of the manufacturer learns of this information and further learns that the manufacturer is not planning on disclosing this to consumers or altering the design of the car. If the employee informs an appropriate federal authority of the design defect in the car, this employee becomes a “whistleblower” in that he or she saw dangerous or illegal activity and “blew a whistle” to stop the activity.
Without protection, potential whistleblowers would be faced with an unpleasant choice if they learned about dangerous or illegal practices. On the one hand, if they report the activity to the proper authorities they would save people from needless injury, death, and/or exploitation but would likely lose their jobs (after all, what company committed to illegal, deceptive, or unfair practices would want to retain an employee who is only going to continue getting the company in legal trouble). On the other hand, if they remain quiet, they will retain their jobs but may suffer from a guilty conscience knowing that they could have prevented injuries and/or deaths but chose not to do so. Speak with an experienced employment law attorney in Phoenix at Ariano & Associates for additional information.
What Protections are Available?
Federal and state laws prohibit employers from taking retaliatory actions against whistleblowers who file a complaint or otherwise properly report to the appropriate agencies a dangerous, illegal, discriminatory, or otherwise prohibited practice in which their employer is engaging. Retaliatory action includes:
- Firing or termination of employment;
- Demotion or reduction in pay;
- Assignment of undesirable jobs;
- Creating a hostile work environment for the whistleblower;
- Exposing the whistleblower to shame, ridicule, or harassment at the workplace.
Whistleblower laws do not protect against all negative or harmful employment actions or decisions taken by the employer. Only those actions which are retaliatory in nature – i.e., taken because of the whistleblower’s actions in reporting the problematic practice – are covered. For example, an employer can still demote or fire a whistleblower so long as the employer has a legitimate reason for doing so that is not connected to the whistleblower’s report, such as showing up late for work or failing to complete work assignments and tasks in a professional manner. See the United States Department of Labor’s website on Whistleblower Protection Programs.