A "whistleblower" is an employee who reports a violation of the law by his or her employer. The violation may be against the reporting employee, as with sexual harassment claims, or may be a general violation such as unlawful pollution practices against environmental law.
Whistleblower protections come from several different significant sources. The federal government and many states have laws protecting whistleblowers from retaliation for filing a claim or reporting a violation. In addition, most states recognize a common-law claim against an employer who takes action against an employee after he or she has reported a violation of the law.
Federal Law Protections for Whistleblowers
The federal Clean Air Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), Energy Reorganization Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Solid Waste Disposal Act, Toxic Substance Control Act, and Water Pollution Control Act each contain protections for an employee who complains about safety or health hazards either in the workplace, or to the environment, caused by an employer.
In order to be protected under these acts, an employee must have a good-faith belief that the employer is violating the law, and must complain either to the employer or to a federal agency about the apparent violation. The employee is then protected even if the employer is ultimately found to be in compliance. An employee who feels that he or she has been retaliated against for making a complaint must bring a complaint to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration within thirty days of the retaliatory action.
State Law Protections for Whistleblowers
Employees are also protected in most states by general statutes or common law barring discrimination or retaliation against whistleblowers. As under federal law, in order to qualify for whistleblower protection in most states, an employee generally must have a good-faith belief that the employer or its employees are in some way violating the law. The employee must also either complain about that violation to the employer or to an outside agency, refuse to participate in the violation, or assist in an official investigation of the violation.
State laws can vary significantly, so it would be better to research the protections available to you in advance of taking actions that could result in retaliation by your employer. You should also examine your employment contract, if there is one, to determine whether you have any contractual obligations to participate in an internal whistleblowing system. You should also examine your employer's policy handbook for additional information about the employers' policies relating to misconduct and whistleblowing.
You can learn more about state-specific laws on our whistleblower law legal answers page.
You should also be aware of provisions relating to confidentiality. Although whistleblowers are protected against retaliation by their employers you will want to be certain that you qualify for protection and that your disclosures don't subsequently expose you to risk of a lawsuit for disclosing the company's confidential information.
Learn More About Whistleblower Protections by Speaking to a Lawyer
If you're an employee who has reported a violation of law by your employer and believe that you've suffered retaliation because of that reporting, you should speak with an experienced employment lawyer to discuss your options and protect your legal rights as a whistleblower.