If you’ve witnessed or found evidence of an activity at your workplace which seems shady or downright illegal, you have a difficult choice to make. Should you point out your concern and risk facing a backlash from management? Or should you keep quiet even though you know there may be unethical or unlawful practices in your workplace? If you decide to become a whistleblower and speak up, either to management or in a public forum, you may need to protect yourself.
What’s a whistleblower?
An employee who discloses or tries to stop an illegal or questionable practice at his workplace is called a “whistleblower.”
Although the exact origin of the word is unknown, the concept of “blowing the whistle” on someone as a means to stop misbehavior has been around since at least 1934. Historical whistleblowers include such recognizable names as Karen Silkwood, Edward Snowden, and the Watergate whistleblower who called himself “Deep Throat” (W. Mark Felt).
Although most whistleblowers don’t make headline news, it’s best to know beforehand how to protect yourself from the dangers that may arise from speaking up.
Know your rights
- Investigate the existing whistleblower laws at both the federal and state level. The National Whistleblowers Center (NWC)is a good place to start.
- Determine if the activity you want to pursue is a protected whistleblower activity. According to the NWC, “one of the most hotly contested issues in whistleblower law is the exact definition of protected whistleblower activity.”
- Make sure your actions fall within your state’s statute of limitations on whistleblower protection. If you wait too long or if your employer doesn’t retaliate within a certain time period, you may not be protected.
Build your case
- Limit yourself to whistleblowing about activities you can prove either through verifiable documentation or eyewitness experience.
- Determine if your employer discharged you in a discriminatory fashion. An example of discriminatory motive: previous positive performance reviews which turned negative after you blew the whistle.
Understand the consequences
- Historically, whistleblowers have been subjected to many forms of retaliation so be prepared to face the worst. Consequences might include job loss, lawsuits, tax audits, and other ongoing hassles or embarrassments. Although many of these retaliatory activities are against the law, it can be difficult to prove their malice. Generally, the more devastating the exposed activity is, the worse the consequences can be.
For more information about blowing the whistle on a federally funded contractors or programs, consult with our legal team about whistleblower laws and rights.