What is a Whistleblower?
A whistleblower is a person who reports illegal or unethical behaviors or activities, often an employee informing on a company, organization, or government agency. Not all whistleblowers are insiders, but this is often the case.
Multiple laws—federal, state, and local—protect whistleblowers. Each of these laws has its own definition of a whistleblower. To receive the protections, you must match the legal definition for whichever law applies. These legal definitions are more specific than the general definition above.
The Importance of Whistleblowers
Whistleblowers play an important role in society, highlighting and helping to stop illegal actions. These may include fraud, abuse, waste, environmental harm, public safety dangers, and more. Law enforcement often cannot discover these violations and illegal activities without the valuable assistance of brave whistleblowers.
Some of the most famous crimes exposed only came to light thanks to whistleblowers stepping forward:
- Former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt, at the time known as “Deep Throat,” exposed President Nixon’s role in the Watergate scandal.
- Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, documents that showed how the Johnson administration lied about activities in Vietnam leading to the war.
- During President Clinton’s impeachment, Linda Tripp informed about Monica Lewinsky’s perjury.
- Edward Snowden informed on the federal government for the electronic surveillance of private citizens.
What Are the Potential Negative Consequences of Informing?
Informing on a supervisor, employer, large company, or organization is intimidating, and for a good reason. Laws are in place to protect whistleblowers because these informers have often experienced retaliation for their efforts to do the right thing. Many whistleblowers have experienced negative repercussions, including:
- Being fired from their jobs
- Being harassed or discriminated against in the workplace, leading to a hostile environment
- Losing out on a promotion
- Being demoted or getting a pay cut
What Protections Do Whistleblowers Have?
The government at all levels has passed laws to protect whistleblowers from retaliation. Multiple laws protecting whistleblowers apply to specific situations. A lawyer specializing in these cases can help you understand which law applies to you.
- The False Claims Act
This is the first whistleblower law, signed by President Lincoln in 1863. The original intention was to prevent suppliers from providing poor quality goods to Union troops by targeting government fraud. Several revisions have made this the most powerful law for protecting whistleblowers reporting fraud that causes financial losses to the government.
- Whistleblower Protection Act
The WPA protects federal employees and job applicants if they disclose information about violations, wasting funds, gross mismanagement, abuse of authority, and other issues.
- The Dodd-Frank Act
Passed in 2010 in response to the financial crisis of 2008, this law targets fraud on Wall Street. Informers exposing securities and commodities trading fraud receive protections and compensation under this law.
- Tax Relief and Health Care Act
Passed in 2006, this law provides financial rewards to whistleblowers who help the IRS recover money in tax fraud cases.
- Environmental Laws
Several federal environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, include protections for whistleblowers. They allow individuals to report violations of the laws that could harm public health.
- Occupational Safety and Health Act
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) administers several laws that protect workplace whistleblowers. These allow employees to report OSHA and other violations at work without retaliation.
- State Laws
Many states have their own whistleblower protection laws. California was the first to pass such legislation in 1959. Some states only protect government workers, while others include workers in the private sector.
What Should I Do if I Have Information to Share?
If you are considering being a whistleblower, make sure you will be legally protected. You must inform using the appropriate channels and the correct procedures according to the law to secure protection. If you meet the requirements, the laws can protect you from retaliation and may even include a financial reward.
The best thing you can do to ensure protections is to speak with a whistleblower lawyer before doing anything. It isn’t easy to understand the multiple laws referencing whistleblowers without this guidance. A lawyer can advise you and help you take the right steps to inform legally.
What to Do if You Lost Your Job for Informing
If you informed on your employer or boss and lost your job or experienced other retaliations, talk to a whistleblower lawyer as soon as possible. Before meeting with a lawyer to evaluate your case, keep records and documentation for everything that happened.
You will need evidence to prove unlawful retaliation. Timing is particularly important, so any evidence you have that shows you lost your job soon after informing will be useful.
Your lawyer will help you decide what action is appropriate to take. For instance, state law may apply in your situation, which may allow you to file a lawsuit against your employer. Under many federal laws, you must file a complaint with a government agency, OSHA, for example, in order to receive protections.
Whistleblowers are courageous and important. They help bring justice to employers and other organizations defrauding the government, harming public health, and damaging the environment. If you have information to share, protect yourself by talking to a lawyer first.