Whistleblowers have rights in the workplace under both state and federal law, and employees who blow the whistle on civil or criminal wrongdoing should be protected from retaliation from their employer.
If you’re considering “blowing the whistle” on an unethical or illegal practice at your workplace, please read this article for a brief explanation of your rights – both with respect to your decision to blow the whistle on specific activity (would that be considered a “protected activity”) as well as what actions taken by your employer or manager would be considered illegal retaliation.
While the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides definitions for protected activity, many states have labor laws that provide protection from retaliation for other circumstances, specific to the state. Be sure to know the laws where you live and work and, when you have questions, please contact an employment attorney who handles whistleblower retaliation cases.
What is Protected Activity?
Protected activity is a specifically defined activity that workers may engage in without fear of retaliation by supervisors or employers. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) handles most whistleblower retaliation cases including those relating to federal employees, and in the past, many problems related to whistleblowing arise from a lack of understanding of what constitutes protected activity.
The list of federally protected activity here is rather extensive. Following are just a few examples:
- Reporting the following to your employer: Criminal acts, violation of law, fraud, mismanagement of funds, waste of funds, abuse of authority, danger to public safety, threats, manipulation of data.
- Refusing to engage in unlawful practices.
- Cooperating with internal investigations into any of those activities listed above.
- Testifying before Congress, any state or federal proceeding, or the EEOC.
If your employer takes action against you for engaging in any of these protected activities, it is time to contact an experienced employment/whistleblower attorney in your area.
Examples of Protected Activity Under State Law
While each state may have differences in what is protected activity and what is not, the basic premise of these activities is very much the same from state to state. Here are four types of activities that are typically protected under state law:
- Complaints with Safety and Health Issues: The filing of an oral or written complaint to a supervisor, employer, union or other representative or government entity.
- Participant in a Proceeding: Employee is involved in a proceeding or investigation into alleged workplace violations.
- Job Function: This occurs when an employee must file a compliant as a result of his or her job function, such as being on a safety or health committee.
- Refusal to Work: If an employee deems an assignment to be unsafe or discriminatory and subsequently refuses to work or carry out a task, he must show that there is a real hazard and that the hazard violates safety or law.
The intersection between employment law and whistleblower protection law, can be confusing the layperson. If you have blown the whistle on illegal or unethical conduct at work, or are thinking about taking action against illegal, unethical or discriminatory practices in your workplace, you will need a knowledgeable, experienced employment lawyer on your side.