Frances Haugen put a face to the term “whistleblower” in October when she testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee about activities she said she witnessed while working at one of the world’s most valuable brands, Facebook.
Haugen talked about how she believed the social media giant put profits over people, particularly the children who used its platforms. And before she left her job at Facebook in May, she collected documents that she contended showed Instagram, a Facebook product, led to depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide among some girls over issues about body images. Her testimony followed the filing of at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission, in which she contends the company isn’t being forthright about its activities.
Her testimony came with no risk of firing since she no longer worked at Facebook, though the company still could seek legal recourse against her for leaking internal documents.
Federal whistleblower laws are designed to prevent employers from retaliating against any employee for reporting actions relating to a number of workplace issues, including pay, safety and fraud. That means employers aren’t allowed to fire, demote or lay off workers, reduce their hours or pay, or prevent them from being promoted. It is important to note, however, that laws don’t apply to every scenario.
Therefore, whistleblowers need to know their rights and how the laws apply to their circumstances. Read on for things to know before blowing the whistle on your employer.
What Are My Protections?
“Depending on who you report to, and what you report, you may or may not be entitled to legal protection from retaliation,” said John Joy, the managing attorney and founder of FTI Law in New York, who has extensive experience in whistleblower cases. “The most important thing to understand here is that there is no general protection for everyone who reports wrongdoing. Reporting in the wrong way, or at the wrong time can mean that you lose the protection you might otherwise have. The rules regarding whistleblower protections are complex, and usually industry and state specific.”
Who Should I Report To?
“One of the most important considerations when thinking about blowing the whistle on your employer is figuring out the right regulator or authority to report to,” Joy said. “For example, if you work for a publicly-traded company, you can report to the SEC. The SEC not only allows you to report violations to them anonymously, but it also offers whistleblowers a reward for reporting companies…For reporting discrimination in the workplace, it is more likely that your complaint may have to be made to the Department of Labor.“
What Could Happen on the Job?
Despite laws designed to prevent retaliation, whistleblowers should brace themselves for some sort of retaliation, including attempts to “demoralize and discredit” employees, said Matthew Stiff, a partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks, a Washington, D.C., law firm with expertise in whistleblower law.
“It is common for conscientious whistleblowers to find themselves the victims of retaliatory personnel actions, including written warnings, specious performance improvement plans and outright terminations predicated on baseless reasons,” Stiff said. “Many of our whistleblower clients also report that vindictive former employers have ‘blacklisted’ them in the industry to ensure that they are unable to find a new job.“
Should I Consult an Attorney First?
It is advisable, experts said.
“At base, there is no downside to speaking to an attorney, but there is a lot of upside,” Joy said. “The information you wish to report may be reportable anonymously and may get you a whistleblower reward. If there is one thing you do before you report, it’s speak to a qualified attorney.”
“There are many common mistakes that a whistleblower might make along the way, and only an experienced whistleblower attorney can advise that individual on how to best navigate these fraught waters without suffering self-inflicted setbacks,” he said.
How Much Will This Cost Me?
“Almost all employment law attorneys and whistleblower attorneys will offer a free consultation, and many will represent you on a contingency fee basis meaning that they only get paid if you get paid,” Joy said. “Speaking to an attorney is also confidential, and the attorney is forbidden from disclosing your conversations to anyone without your permission, even if you don’t hire them.”
Joy said whistleblower rewards programs run by a handful of federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, allow a whistleblower to obtain up to 30% of any fine imposed by regulators.
Remember, reporting your findings of improprieties in the workplace is your right. It’s wise to consider all the ramifications first, however.
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Last updated: Oct. 27, 2021