A whistleblower is an employee who “tells” on their employer because an employee reasonably believed that the employer committed an illegal act.
Many violations of the law, and many dangers to public health and safety, go unreported because people who know about them are afraid of retaliation. As our livelihoods, and often our health insurance, are dependent on our jobs, the fear of losing a job is pervasive. Whenever the law provides a remedy for victims of retaliation, it encourages employees to come forward with evidence that will make our world safer, healthier, and more just.
Whistleblower and anti-retaliation laws protect all employees who report illegal conduct of any employer, employment agency, or labor organization. This includes applicants, current employees, and former employees. For example, an employer cannot refuse to hire an applicant because she had filed a retaliation complaint against her former employer.
Additionally, whistleblower and antiretaliation laws protect employees regardless of their citizenship or work authorization status. For example, suppose an employer suspects an employee is an undocumented immigrant. If that employee files a sexual harassment claim, antiretaliation laws prohibit the employer from threatening to expose that employee’s immigration status as punishment for filing the claim.
Whistleblower retaliation laws prohibit a broad range of retaliatory actions against whistleblowers, including any act that would dissuade a worker from engaging in protected whistleblowing. Examples include:
- terminating a whistleblower;
- constructively discharging a whistleblower;
- demoting a whistleblower;
- suspending a whistleblower;
- harassing a whistleblower or subjecting the whistleblower to a hostile work environment;
- reassigning a whistleblower to a position with significantly different responsibilities;
- issuing a performance evaluation or performance improvement plan that supplies the necessary foundation for the eventual termination of the whistleblower’s employment, or a written warning or counseling session that is considered discipline by policy or practice and is routinely used as the first step in a progressive discipline policy;
- placing the whistleblower on administrative leave;
- threatening to take an adverse action against a whistleblower;
- subjecting a whistleblower to a retaliatory investigation;
- suing a whistleblower for the purpose of retaliating against the whistleblower;
- outing a whistleblower; or
- discriminating against a whistleblower in the terms and conditions of employment because of whistleblowing.
Whistleblower retaliation can derail a career and deprive the whistleblower of future earnings. Whistleblowers should be rewarded for doing the right thing, but all too often they suffer retaliation and find themselves marginalized and ostracized. Federal and state whistleblower protection laws provide remedies to compensate whistleblowers that have suffered retaliation, including:
- back pay (lost wages and benefits);
- emotional distress damages;
- damages for reputational harm;
- reinstatement or front pay in lieu thereof;
- lost future earnings; and
- punitive damages.
If you feel that you have been fired for disclosing your employer’s unlawful conduct, contact an experienced employment law attorney immediately.