While it may be satisfying to complain about your boss, the truth is, complaining can and will get you fired. While most people think we have free speech in this country, there’s no First Amendment in the private workplace. If you work for government, you do have free speech rights, but they are limited. Sassing your boss or saying she’s incompetent is not protected speech.
If the company is violating the law – Medicare fraud, ripping off the government, failing to pay taxes, failing to pay wages, discriminating, polluting, etc., there are a host of whistleblower laws that may protect you. You need to find out which law protects you and make sure you complain in a way that’s protected. Some laws require you complain in writing to a supervisor. Some say you have to report the company to a government agency. Some only require that you object to or refuse to participate in the illegal activity. If you get it wrong, you aren’t protected from retaliation.
Think about these questions to see if you might be a whistleblower. These are just some examples of activities that might be protected.
1. Have you recently objected to any activity, policy, or practice of the employer which is in violation of a law, rule, or regulation?
Under many whistleblower laws, but not all, your objection may have to be in writing. But an objection to a breach of the employer’s policies, or to an ethical violation, is generally not protected whistleblowing. While writing your long letter venting about every way the workplace is unprofessional may be satisfying, it can get you fired.
The objection most likely has to be to an activity, policy or practice of the employer. If you object to a coworker stealing from the company, it’s probably not protected. What would be protected is objection to failure to pay overtime, discrimination based on a protected category (race, age, sex, religion, national origin, marital status, disability, color and, in a couple of counties, sexual orientation), safety violations governed by OSHA, or almost any other legal violation. Statutes, government regulations, and county/city ordinances would fall in this category.
Even if the objection doesn’t need to be in writing, I suggest you put it in writing so the employer can’t deny you made the objection later.
2. Have you recently refused to participate in any activity, policy, or practice of the employer which is in violation of a law, rule, or regulation?
If the employer asks you to do something actually illegal, whistleblower laws applying to your industry may say you can refuse and you are protected. But I still suggest you put your refusal in writing.
3. Have you recently disclosed, or threatened to disclose, to any appropriate governmental agency, under oath, in writing, an activity, policy, or practice of the employer that is in violation of a law, rule, or regulation?
You may be protected if you have, in writing, brought the activity, policy, or practice to the attention of a supervisor or the employer and have given the employer a reasonable opportunity to correct the activity, policy, or practice. Examples would be making a formal written complaint of discrimination based on, say, sex. The formal complaint would say that, if the situation is not promptly resolved, you intend to file a charge of discrimination with EEOC. Then you could invoke this provision after giving them time to fix the situation.
4. Have you recently provided information to, or testified before, any appropriate governmental agency, person, or entity conducting an investigation, hearing, or inquiry into an alleged violation of a law, rule, or regulation by the employer?
If you give information to the police, unemployment, EEOC, OSHA, a legislative body, or other entity actually doing an investigation of an illegal practice, you may well be a protected whistleblower.
The Whistleblower Laws
The remedies, requirements, and administrative hoops are the subject of entire treatises, so I’ll just draw your attention to some of the major whistleblower laws.
The federal whistleblower laws are:
The OSHA –enforced laws govern protection of workers against retaliation for complaining to employers, unions or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), or other government agencies about unsafe or unhealthful conditions in the workplace, the environment, some public safety hazards, some securities fraud violations.
OSHA enforces these anti-retaliation laws:
Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSH Act), 29 USC § 660(c)
Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), 49 USC § 31105
Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), 15 USC § 2651
International Safety Container Act (ISCA), 46 USC App. § 1506
Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 (ERA), 42 USC § 5851
Clean Air Act (CAA), 42 USC § 7622
Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), 42 USC § 300j-9(i)
Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA), 33 USC § 1367
Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), 15 USC § 2622
Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA), 42 USC § 6971
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 USC § 9610
Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act (AIR21), 49 USC § 42121
Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), 18 USC § 1514A
Pipeline Safety Improvement Act (PSIA), 49 USC § 60129
Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA), 49 USC § 20109
National Transit Systems Security Act (NTSSA), 6 U.S.C. §1142
Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), 15 U.S.C. §2
Affordable Care Act (ACA), P.L. 111-148
Sarbanes-Oxley is the most famous OSHA-enforced whistleblower law. It protects employees of publicly-traded corporations from retaliation for reporting violations of SEC rules and federal laws regarding fraud against shareholders.
The Whistleblower Protection Act protects Federal employee whistleblowers.
Military Whistleblower Protection Act protects whistleblowers in the U.S. military
False Claims Act (FCA), which enables a private citizen to file a lawsuit in on behalf of the U.S. Government for fraud by contractors and other businesses that use federal funds. Qui Tam prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for attempting to report fraud against Medicare, Medicaid, FDA, GSA, HUD, USDA, U.S. Postal Service, NIH and the military, but not the IRS.
States that have whistleblower protection laws for most employees, government or private, are: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.*
States that offer whistleblower protection to government, but not private employees are: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.*
*State laws change all the time, as do federal laws. Talk to a lawyer in your state or do your research to make sure you're jumping through all the right hoops to be protected.
Other Types Of Retaliation
Here are some examples of other types of complaints where the law protects you from retaliation.
Discrimination: If you are the victim of discrimination or harassment based upon your race, age, sex, religion, national origin, color, disability, genetic information, association with a person in one of these categories, or another category that’s protected in your state/county/city (e.g., marital status or sexual orientation that aren’t protected by federal law), then you have to follow your employer’s published discrimination/harassment policy and report it.
Wage/overtime violations: If you’re terminated for objecting to failure to pay wages owed or failure to pay overtime, you may be protected from retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act or your state’s wage/hour laws.
Collective action to improve working conditions: The National Labor Relations Act protects employees from being retaliated against if they get together to try to improve the terms and conditions of their employment. So those letters employees sometimes do to complain against unfair treatment or bullying are supposed to be protected. The only problem is that many employers and management-side lawyers think this only applies to unionized workplaces (they’re wrong) and so they usually don’t hesitate to retaliate. Awareness was raised recently because the NLRB went after a company when it disciplined an employee for posting negative comments about a supervisor on Facebook and other coworkers chimed in. We’ll see how this case shakes out and whether it’s ultimately deemed a protected collective action. In the meantime, I’d avoid saying your boss is a jerk on Facebook or Twitter. Your remedies under this law aren’t the easiest to get or the best, but it’s something to hang your hat on and wave in front of the boss if they start threatening retaliation.
Deadlines/Statutes of Limitations
If you’ve been retaliated against, you may have short deadlines for bringing your complaint, and there may be some requirements you have to meet before you can sue. Here are some examples.
Sarbanes-Oxley: You must file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor within 90 days of the date you found out about the whistleblower discrimination, harassment or retaliation.
Other whistleblower claims: Statutes of limitations can be as short as 30 days for some whistleblowers protected under federal laws (e.g., environmental whistleblowers). State whistleblower laws vary, so be sure you know your deadlines.
Qui tam: Within the later of 6 years from the date of the violation; or
3 years after the government (or sometimes you) knows or should have known about the violation, but never longer than 10 years after the violation.
a. If you’re going to complain about legal wrongdoing or discrimination, I suggest putting it in writing even if the employer’s policy says to have a meeting. You can present the written document at the meeting. That way you have proof that you complained about something that’s protected. Otherwise, HR will almost always say you complained about general harassment or unfair treatment, which isn’t protected.
b. If you complain, keep it professional and to the point. Avoid complaining about personality conflicts or incompetence. Stick to the facts that prove what’s happening is illegal.
c. HR is entitled to investigate your complaint. That means even if they have a policy of keeping your complaint confidential, your boss, the person you’re complaining about, and your witnesses and other coworkers will probably find out about it. Be prepared for that to happen, and be ready to report retaliation.
d. If you are retaliated against for reporting something illegal, put your complaint of retaliation in writing. If the retaliation doesn’t stop, or if you get fired, disciplined, demoted, or a pay cut as a result, contact an employment attorney.
e. If, after you complain, the situation is not fixed, contact an employment attorney for advice. But they don’t have to fire anyone or take any specific action, so don’t threaten to quit if they don’t fire the perpetrator.
f. If you’re complaining about a boss or coworker embezzling, stealing, or doing something TO the company, as opposed to on behalf of the company, you’re probably not protected from retaliation. You’d be surprised how many people get fired for reporting someone ripping off the company. Silly, yes, but there you have it. Killing the messenger is alive and well.
Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.