A whistleblower, reportedly a CIA officer assigned to the White House, set off a political and constitutional firestorm by reporting allegations that the President conditioned delivering military aid to the Ukraine on that country investigating one of his political opponents.
Did on-the-job protections for federal workers make the whistleblower more likely to come forward?
It’s hard to know why the whistleblower came forward. But assuming the whistleblower had civil service protections, an employee of the federal government has more job security than your typical employee.
Employees of the federal government can only be fired for just cause. A typical employee is an at-will employee which means that they can be fired at any time for any reasons. While whistleblower laws protect all employees, the fact that federal employees have a just cause standard for termination gives them an extra layer of protection from getting fired than at-will employees.
State employees in Nebraska have similar protections to federal employees. I think it is reasonable to argue that those protections government employees somewhat more likely to report misconduct as they have less reasons to fear for their jobs than a typical at-will employee.
That’s not to say that whistleblowers just need to fear for their jobs. President Trump mused about killing whistleblowers. The Obama administation routinely prosecuted whistleblowers. Less prominent whistleblowers are usually subject to all sorts of petty harassment on the job. I’ve written before about how government employers seem to excel at making employees miserable if they want to get rid of an employee.
But a typical government whistleblower has less immediate fear about how they are going to earn wages than a typical private sector whistleblower.
A union contract gives private sector workers similar on the job protections to government employees. Many government employees are also covered by union contracts which helps them to further to protect their rights on the job.
Some argue that it’s too hard to fire public employees, but whistleblowing serves an important function in a free society. How many fewer whistleblowers would there be if government employees were just at-will employees who were easy to fire?
I have written a lot about employment at-will lately because the importance of employment at-will explains so much about employment law. I believe the question of whether Title VII expressly protects workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity could turn on the value placed on the employment at-will doctrine regardless of whether that influence is acknowledged.
Employment at-will establishes the legal relationship between employee and employer. The employee-employer relationship can also have an impact beyond the immediate boundaries of the workplace. I think it’s worth exploring the relationship between whistleblowing and the fact that most government employees are not at-will employees.