Whistleblower statutes protect employees when they find themselves in the difficult position of discovering their employer violating a law or in some way breaching the public trust. If the employer is warned of the problem but takes no action, or asks the employee to keep the situation confidential, the employee may be personally participating in a crime and may be exposed to a certain amount of personal liability.
Whistleblowers play an extremely important role in uncovering and correcting governmental waste, environmental dangers, public safety violations, conspiracies, fraud, and deceit.
What Does It Mean to "Blow the Whistle?"
Sometimes, the right thing to do is to report the employer to the authorities (or "blow the whistle"), but the employee may risk losing his job or position within the company. In this situation, the employee may be torn between a legal or ethical duty and perceived loyalty to his employer -- a dilemma that whistleblower protections seek to diminish.
"Whistleblower" issues arise in various circumstances, such as when an employee discovers that his government contractor employer is overbilling the government, or when a public or private employer is discovered cutting corners on safety matters in violation of rules and regulations under state or federal occupational health and safety acts. Other situations may involve employer practices of:
In these situations, if an employee exposes an unsafe, illegal or unethical practice to the authorities, the employee may be the subject of punitive or retaliatory action, such as dismissal, transfer to an undesirable job assignment, demotion, etc. Whistleblower statutes may prohibit dismissal or other retaliatory action against the employee. They may also provide for enhanced monetary awards to employees who "blow the whistle" on an unscrupulous employer.
State Whistleblower Laws
State whistleblower statutes vary in a number of respects. Some states only provide explicit protection for public employees or those working for government contractors. Statutes also vary with respect to whom is protected or on whom the whistle may be blown. Some states extend protection to other co-workers who assist the whistleblower. Others explicitly protect an employee who blows the whistle on fellow employees or another person or business entity with a business relationship with the employer.
In California, the law now extends this liability beyond the employer to include anyone acting on behalf of the employer (such a third party management contractor). Also, California whistleblower protections protect workers who disclose violations even if doing so is not part of their official job duties.
Most states limit remedies that an employee may recover to actual damages, such as back pay or fringe benefits. In some cases, however, the employee is given a money award tied to the illegal or unethical activity exposed. In South Carolina, if the employee's report or complaint results in a savings of public funds, s/he may recover 25 percent of the estimated net savings in the first year after corrective action is undertaken.
It should be noted that in addition to state statutes, there are a number of federal whistleblower provisions which protect employees in much the same way. However, many federal laws include much harsher penalties for employers and greater rewards for employees who risk careers and livelihoods by reporting activity that is damaging to the public trust.
Research the Law
State Whistleblower Laws: Related Resources
Contact a qualified attorney.