Whistleblowers in the Workplace
A whistleblower is an employee who complains or brings to an employer’s attention misconduct by the employer of health and safety violations, fraud against shareholders, and financial mismanagement. As an employer you must be mindful not to terminate or otherwise discipline an employee merely out of retaliation towards the employee for bringing forth accusations about violations the company may have committed. As long as an employee reasonably believes that a violation has occurred they are protected by various federal and state whistleblower laws. Employers can face costly lawsuits from employers and potentially criminal charges and fines for violating those rules.
Employees find protection as whistleblowers under many federal statutes as well as under state mandates. In the wake of Enron and other corporate mismanagement scandals Congress enacted the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002. The provisions of this act offer protections from retaliatory termination to whistleblowers that bring accusations of corporate mismanagement to federal agencies or within the company itself.
There are also many other federal and state statutes that provide whistleblower type protection to employees. These protections include accusations of discrimination, harassment, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations, Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) violations, and minimum wage and maximum hour laws.
Employees coming forward about any violations of these laws cannot be subject to termination or disciplinary action merely because they spoke up about alleged violations.
How to Properly Deal with Complaints by Whistleblowers
Dealing with complaints of workplace misconduct at your business can be extremely stressful for the small business owner. It is important to take certain precautions when facing internal complaints from whistleblowers. While it is not always easy to listen to complaints leveled against your company, it is better to listen to a complaining employee now and deal with the situation in the correct manner than to fire or discipline an employee for coming forward and exacerbate the situation.
It is important that employers enact set procedures to investigate all complaints. This will help foster employee trust in the employer, even if they think a violation has occurred.
Showing employees that you take their concerns seriously and that as their employer you are striving to make their workplace better will make employees more likely to come to you to resolve their complaints, instead of going directly to authorities.
It is also important to keep proper documentation about employee terminations and discipline. When disciplining employees, especially one who could potentially bring forward a whistleblower lawsuit, it is important to document and make clear the reasons for any discipline or firing of an employee. Showing that you disciplined an employee for a proper reason could help if a lawsuit is brought against your company.
It is also of paramount importance to consult your attorney regarding your exposure to whistleblower litigation. An attorney can help you set up proper complaint investigation procedures and counsel you on what to do about any specific complaints from employees.
It is also important to consult with a legal professional about disciplining employees who could potentially bring whistleblower type claims against you. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of care in the future.