Illegal or Unethical Behavior at Work
Sometimes it’s easy to tell when something fishy is happening at work. But in other situations, it may be harder to tell if your employer is cutting corners on laws or regulations that you’re not familiar with.
According to the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey, nearly half of employees surveyed – 45 percent – observed improper conduct at work. The good news: Sixty-five percent of those who witnessed wrongdoing reported it.
The bad news: More than one out of five who blew the whistle – 22 percent – experienced some form of retaliation, including missing out on pay raises and promotions, harassment, and even being fired from their jobs.
What’s the right thing to do when your employer is doing something wrong?
Retaliation against whistle-blowers is a serious problem, and Congress has responded with 18 federal laws to protect employees who report misconduct. Whistle-blowers are protected when reporting violations of federal law, including:
- Environmental violations
- Financial misconduct
- Potential food or drug hazards
- An employer’s failure to pay wages
- Workplace health and safety violations
There’s also a catchall federal whistle-blower protection statute, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has its own Office of the Whistleblower for reports of financial fraud and abuse.
The Federal False Claims Act allows whistle-blowers to collect a portion of any financial settlement the government collects when misconduct is reported – like if a hospital or health care provider, for example, is submitting false claims to Medicare.
If you believe you have been the victim of retaliation at work because you reported violations of a federal statute, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, which enforces most federal whistle-blower statutes. In most cases, you must file a report within 30 days of when you believe the retaliation has occurred.
One exception is if the misconduct involved allegations of fraud against the U.S. Department of Defense. In that case, you should contact the DOD Inspector General.
Thirty-seven states also have whistle-blower protection statutes.
Even with all this legal protection, making a decision to blow the whistle at work should not be taken lightly. In some situations, prominent whistle-blowers have won significant settlements after being fired illegally; others can share in significant monetary awards under the Federal False Claims Act.
Some ideas to consider if you ever find yourself in this predicament:
- Just say no: If somebody at work asks you to skip a safety inspection on a piece of machinery, falsify a report to a customer, or participate in illegal harassment, tell them “no” in no uncertain terms.
- Talk to your co-workers: Have others seen the same problem you’re seeing? Are others concerned about it? Whatever action you take will be stronger if you act together, and you’ll also have stronger legal protections than if you act alone.
- Confront the problem: If you see wrongdoing, talk to the person involved, to that person’s boss or to your own boss. Let them know you intend to report the problem if it continues. Keep in mind, however, as Ask A Manager points out, while making sure laws and regulations are followed in your workplace is important, so is maintaining a good relationship with your boss and co-workers. If possible, be nonconfrontational instead of accusatory.
- Got a hotline? If your company has a hotline for reporting misconduct or unethical behavior, make use of this procedure. In many cases, a complaint to a government agency or a lawsuit will not succeed if you have not first exhausted internal remedies.
- Put it in writing: If initial efforts to resolve the problem are not successful and you want to pursue further action, its important put your observations in writing, print out a copy and keep it at home, where you control your own records. Note: Taking confidential documents from work into your own possession is usually not a good idea. They are typically the property of your employer, and removing such material could be grounds for discipline or discharge.
- Consult an attorney: Blowing the whistle is a high-stakes decision that may involve multiple state and federal laws. So it’s a good idea to talk an attorney before deciding on a course of action. The National Whistleblowers Center (a site run by private attorneys) operates an attorney referral service.
Article: “How to Tell Your Boss He’s Breaking the Law,” at AskAManager.org
Article: “The Price Whistleblowers Pay for Secrets,”at NYTimes.com
Article: “U.S. Department of Labor Prioritizes Whistleblower Protection,” at California Chamber of Commerce’s HR Watchdog
White paper: “Retaliation: When Whistleblowers Become Victims,” from the Ethics Resource Center
White paper: “Whistleblower Protections Under Federal Law: An Overview,” from the Congressional Research Service
Government agency: U.S. Department of Labor, “The Whistleblower Protection Program”
Table: “State Whistleblower Laws,” from the National Conference of State Legislatures
Telltale signs that somebody is trying to pull a fast one:
- If your supervisor says, “Let’s just keep this between us.”
- If you’re given a verbal order to carry out a task that doesn’t sound right – dump chemicals down a drain, for example – but nobody wants to put it in writing.
- If you ask a question about something that concerns you and nobody wants to answer.