The Department of Labor oversees 20 federal whistleblower statutes and regulations, covering every industry from banking to public water systems. The Securities and Exchange Commission has an Office of the Whistleblower, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has its own dedicated Whistleblower Program.
Every federal agency has established whistleblower policies, and states effect additional workplace protections. While whistleblower laws vary by industry and jurisdiction, all industries offer specific protections to workers who blow the whistle on an employer’s illegal or improper actions.
Here are a few things you should know.
• Employers cannot retaliate against whistleblowers.
Whistleblower laws consistently prohibit employers not only from discharging—firing—an employee who reported them but also from discriminating against that worker. Language often describes forms of discrimination broadly, as issues regarding “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment”—in other words, any form of interference in a person’s livelihood.
The Mesriani Law Group in California points out, “It is not always easy to identify acts of harassment and discrimination as a result of whistleblowing.” However, they often are recognizable as demotions or reassignments, denials of benefits, threats or intimidation, attempts to block future endeavors or even a work environment so intolerable that the employee quits.
• Laws set procedures for whistleblowers to file claims.
If employers do attempt to punish or intimidate a worker, each whistleblower law establishes procedures that individuals suffering retaliatory actions should follow to file a complaint. Workers must file their claim with the indicated authority and be able to demonstrate that their employer’s behavior correlates to their role as a whistleblower, and that it is not something that would have happened anyway.
Whistleblower protections extend to workers who provide information themselves or prompt someone else to provide information to a supervisor or authority appropriate to the industry, violation and jurisdiction. The protections also cover anyone involved in any resulting legal proceedings. Open protests, general complaints to coworkers and activism, however, may be considered unprotected actions outside of accepted whistleblower policy protections.
• Whistleblower laws have statutes of limitations.
Statutes of limitations for whistleblower laws vary substantially—from a mere 30 days for the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, for example, to 180 days for the Consumer Financial Protection Act. Time frame eligibility for filing a complaint begins with the date of the retaliatory behavior and closes at the end of the time limit set for the applicable law, leaving workers little room for delays, indecision or reluctance to file a complaint.
With heavy fines, prison time and damages at stake, investigations into complaints of employer retaliation require documentation. Personnel actions, witness accounts, records of both oral and written communications, copies of policies and handbooks, and timelines of events and the people involved are valuable evidence for employees and employers alike. Meanwhile, throughout the process, the laws and all of their protections remain: Employers cannot fire or discriminate against a whistleblower.