Most Americans depend on their jobs. For most of us, our job is our livelihood and we are dependent on the money that it brings in to meet our living expenses. For many of us, our jobs are also a source of pride or accomplishment and play a large part in defining what we do with our days. For those reasons, most employees are hesitant to do anything that could cost them their job.
So, what does an honest employee do when he finds out that his employer is breaking the law? Is it possible for the employee to report the employer’s actions without losing his job?
Federal Whistleblower Laws
Congress has recognized that it is important to protect employees who report the illegal behavior of their employers in certain situations and that employees are understandably hesitant to report the actions of their employers for fear that they will lose their jobs, have their hours cut, or be denied benefits. However, employees are in unique positions to know if their employers are breaking the law and society has an interest in making sure employers comply with the law. For example, an employee might be aware that an employer is violating an environmental protection law and without the employee’s information the public might not be aware of the violation until serious consequences result from the violation. Or, an employee might be aware that the employer was discriminating against racial minorities or certain religious groups in its hiring practices and that information might never come to light without the employee’s reporting.
It is because of the unique knowledge of the employees and the societal interest in making sure that the laws are followed that Congress has enacted certain laws to protect employees from retaliation if they report the allegedly illegal acts of their employers. These kinds of laws are commonly referred to as whistleblower laws.
Blowing the Whistle
An employee must be careful in how he or she chooses to make his or her allegations known. Whistleblower protection only applies to employees who report their allegations through the proper channels. Typically, that means reporting the information to a supervisor, filing a complaint with the appropriate government agency or testifying against an employer in a formal proceeding. Whistleblower protection would not apply to an employee who shared his or her information with coworkers in the lunchroom or who sent out a mass e-mail to his or her peers.
Once the employee has lawfully made his or her allegations known to the correct people and the employer has retaliated against the employee then the employee has a strictly regulated amount of time in which to report the retaliation. That time varies by statute but may be as short as 30 days.
Since the first whistleblower law was passed in 1912, some workers have been protected for the lawful reporting of alleged illegal activities. However, today there are numerous federal and state laws that protect whistleblowers. While no system is perfect and some employees may still be intimidated into keeping silent, whistleblower laws encourage the reporting of unsafe and illegal acts for the greater good.
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