Whistleblowers have helped expose some of the biggest corporate scandals of the 21st century, including Enron and the Bernie Madoff scandals. Whistleblowers usually expose themselves to a real personal risk by opposing wrongdoing. These risks often include getting fired from their job. If you are thinking about blowing the whistle on illegal conduct at work, here are six questions you should ask yourself:
1. Are you really opposing unlawful or illegal activity? Lawyers who defend companies against whistleblower claims often may paint whistleblowing as mere disagreement about management style or philosophy. As a matter of law, a whistleblower also must have good faith or honest belief that they are opposing illegal conduct. If you are thinking about bringing a whistleblower complaint, it would be a good idea to do a little research. Whistleblowers.gov is a great resource for the various industries that are covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration whistleblower statutes. Most experienced employment attorneys are also willing to do some free consultation for prospective whistleblowers as to whether they are opposing illegal conduct.
2. Does someone in upper management at your company know about your complaints? This can be intimidating, but in my experience, you will have a stronger case if you bring up your concerns to someone higher up in management than your direct supervisor or worksite manager. This puts the company on notice about the unlawful conduct, and it bolsters your credibility as someone who was concerned enough about the potentially illegal conduct that they reported it to someone within the company who could act on it. Likewise, if someone with authority at your company is on notice of the potentially illegal conduct and that person doesn’t take action, that can bolster your possible case. Sometimes firms will have an “ethics” hotline or will refer you to human resources. I don’t think it hurts to report through those channels, but I think you should also report the unlawful conduct to someone who has the actual authority to change the practice that you are challenging.
3. Can you frame your complaint as a business problem and suggest solutions to the problem of unlawful conduct and be reasonable in how you report the misconduct? I cribbed this idea from a post from the excellent SkloverWorkingWisdom blog written by attorney Alan Sklover. All things being equal in an employment law case, the party who is most reasonable is going to win. This fact tends to disadvantage employees, because it’s hard to keep a level head when you are being mistreated or being asked to participate in unlawful conduct at work. But do your best to be level headed and objective when you bring up your complaints to management. Like the point in the last paragraph, if the employer ignores your practical solution to the potentially unlawful conduct, then you have bolstered your possible case.
4. Will other employees will join you in your complaints? Whistleblowers tend to get tarred as tattletales. If co-workers are joining you in your complaints, the case becomes more credible. If you make a legitimate complaint as a group, you also gain protection of the National Labor Relations Act for engaging in protected concerted activity, as well as under any whistleblower law that you might be bringing a case under.
5. How strongly can you support your claims? To win any whistleblower retaliation case, you must have evidence to prove your case. In most cases, this requires written evidence that often takes the form of emails that implicate possible wrongdoers. If a case gets into litigation, then in theory, such documents must be disclosed. That does not always happen in practice. Additionally, having documents will help a lawyer determine if you have a possible claim and how strong your possible claim could be.
Employees may have concerns about revealing confidential documents and/or be concerned that their employer may take legal action against them for revealing company information. Many whistleblower laws protect certain types of information from being deemed confidential. Employers are also somewhat reluctant to act against whistleblowers, because this can invite more retaliation litigation. But potential whistleblowers should be aware of possible legal liability for disclosing company information, so an employee should be very careful about how they choose to share company information. Attorney-client communications, even those communications involving prospective clients are confidential. By consulting with an attorney, a prospective whistleblower can get some guidance as to whether they are risking legal liability by disclosing information.
Evidence can also take the form of witness testimony, which is why it is helpful if you have a group of employees opposing potentially unlawful conduct.
6. Are you willing to change jobs or relocate? Even if what you think is a valid whistleblower complaint is merely a dispute with a manager over something that it isn’t illegal, the fact for you is that if you are doing something or working in an environment that you don’t like, you are almost setting yourself up to fail. This is probably even more true if you have a valid whistleblower claim. Studies show that it is easier to find a job while you are still employed. Even with anti-discrimination laws, employers have broad discretion to fire employees under the “employment at-will” doctrine. The underappreciated flip side of employment at-will for employees is that they can quit without cause or notice. If you are in a dysfunctional or even hostile work environment, it’s smart to take advantage of the ability to quit freely if you have another job lined up.