Whistleblower Protection Laws

This tip sheet outlines the federal laws to protect employees who report, or “blow the whistle,” on suspected improper or illegal government activities that happen in the workplace. These activities may include fraud, waste, abuse, unnecessary government spending, and unsafe or unhealthy employer practices. 

Whistleblower laws protect employees against the following possible employer actions:

  • a transfer or reassignment in a way that affects chances for promotion 
  • denial of a raise, benefits, overtime, or a promotion
  • being laid off or fired
  • intimidation
  • a reduction in hours or pay 
  • demotion
  • being blacklisted
  • any other form of punishment

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces 18 different laws with various whistleblower provisions that protect employees who work in different industries from employer retaliation. Each law requires that employees file a complaint with the federal government within a certain number of days of being punished by an employer for reporting a workplace wrongdoing to a union, OSHA, federal agencies, or other authorities. Employees also are protected from employer retaliation for seeking an OSHA inspection, for testifying or participating in activities related to OSHA inspections, and for refusing to do a hazardous job under certain circumstances. 

Employers are legally obligated to inform employees about OSHA safety and health standards that apply to their workplace. They must make copies of those standards available to employees who ask for them. Employers also must openly display the official OSHA poster that describes employee rights and responsibilities under the law.

In an effort to meet the legal obligations as defined by OSHA, the Northern Hudson Valley Job Services Employer Committee (NHVJSEC) has adapted procedures to limit liability and avoid whistleblower lawsuits. According to the NHVJSEC, there are two ways for employers to avoid whistleblower lawsuits: do not get involved in illegal or improper conduct that could trigger whistleblower action and do not mistreat the whistleblower if a complaint is filed. 

Limiting Liability

To help limit employer liability for whistleblower retaliation claims, the NHVJSEC recommends the following:

  • Establish an ethics policy. The policy should state that the employer will comply with all legal obligations. A good ethics policy also should include a complaint reporting procedure, encourage employees to report misconduct, and include disciplinary action for employees who fail to do so. The policy should also assure employees that their complaints will be properly investigated and that they will not be subject to retaliation for having complained in good faith.
  • Provide training on ethics and applicable laws. Employers should provide employee training on the ethics policy and any industry related statutes or regulations. Managers should have additional training on complying with the relevant laws and recognizing and responding appropriately to whistleblower activity. 
  • Maintain documentation. Employers should accurately and adequately document all employee performance and conduct problems that could be a basis for disciplining or discharging an employee.

Employers who find themselves faced with a whistleblower complaint might find the following actions helpful:

  • Recognize complaints. Whistleblower complaints could be obvious or subtle. Proper training can increase sensitivity about complaints among supervisors and managers and help separate frivolous complaints from actual whistleblower activity.
  • Investigate complaints and document the investigation. Make the investigation prompt and thorough and keep a record of it.
  • Remediate the complaint. After the investigation, an employer should assess the allegations and determine what, if anything, to do in response.
  • Debrief the complainant. Be sure to close the loop with the complaining employee by sharing appropriate information about the investigation.
  • Have a game plan. After the allegations have been addressed, the employer should have a plan for avoiding future complaints. This will help demonstrate the employer’s commitment to corporate ethics.
  • Follow the policy. Failing to follow the company’s existing corporate policy during a pending investigation can be a problem in whistleblower litigation.
  • Cooperate with government investigations. Employers should fully cooperate and provide all relevant documentation and information to support the reasons for taking an adverse action against the employee. 

There have been ongoing efforts to strengthen safeguards for employees against employer retaliation through whistleblower legislation.

Sources: U.S. Department of Labor, Northern Hudson Valley Job Services Employer Committee

Whistleblower Protection Laws. U.S. Department of Labor, Northern Hudson Valley Job Services Employer Committee. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2010. English.

Last Reviewed: October 2012

Last Updated: November 13, 2014