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Understanding Whistleblowing in the Workplace

Whistleblowing is, at its root, the act of reporting, internally or externally, activities within an organization that an employee believes to be illegal, unethical, or otherwise incorrect. While whistleblowers are protected on the Federal level, the state of California has long been a leader in providing protections for whistleblowers and ensuring that all employees feel safe in reporting inappropriate actions performed by their employers. The actions being reported are not specifically required to be specifically illegal but can also be activities that cause unsafe working conditions or environments.

Whistleblowing takes many forms; the first is often simply reporting the activity to someone higher up in an organization. Next, the individual can file a complaint with the appropriate regulatory body, including various offices and regulatory bodies. The California State Auditor has a Whistleblower Protection Department specifically for reports against a state agency or other governmental department. 

Whistleblowing and whistleblowers are incredibly important for ensuring that companies and agencies act within the bounds of not only legality but also ethics and safety. Thanks to the legal protections provided to individuals who report dangerous, illegal, or otherwise inappropriate actions, companies are encouraged to be transparent about their practices.

Examples of Whistleblower Activities

Whistleblowing can cover a wide range of activities, such as reporting safety violations, as is the case of Ed Pierson and Boeing, or reporting harassment or discrimination, such as Ifeoma Ozoma’s reports about Pinterest. Other whistleblowing scenarios could include financial fraud, environmental harm, or violating specific federal, state, or local laws.

Retaliation against whistleblowers is as varied as the whistleblowers themselves, ranging from denying promotions and raises, changing work schedules to inconvenience or otherwise impede the employee, threatening the complainant, firing them, or threatening the employee or their family. Coworkers of the whistleblower can also engage in informal retaliation by excluding the individual from social engagement or work projects or engaging in behavior that creates a hostile work environment for the whistleblower. 

California’s Legal Framework for Whistleblower Protection

California has several pieces of legislation designed to encourage whistleblowers and protect them from retaliation. Chief among them is the California Whistleblower Protection Act, which details the protected parties and actions and provides information about how to go about reporting violations. Included under the Act is a provision that the report must not necessarily prove to be true, so long as the whistleblower reported it in good faith, believing that they were making an accurate complaint. Additionally, the Act covers actions employers may not take against whistleblowers and people perceived as being whistleblowers, as well as the penalties for violating the act and retaliating against the complainant, including steep fines and jail sentences. 

California Labor Code Section 1102.5 goes into further detail about what employers and coworkers may not do and stipulates that the fines levied against retaliators will be paid to the whistleblower. The Labor Code also protects the families of whistleblowers and people perceived as being whistleblowers. 

Whistleblowers are given specific protections against retaliation, detailing acts such as:

  • Attempting to intimidate or coerce the whistleblower into not reporting or retracting a report
  • Firing or demoting the whistleblower
  • Harassing or allowing others to harass the complainant
  • Making the workplace hostile and encouraging the whistleblower to quit

Whistleblowers who face retaliation may be entitled to several forms of legal relief – their employer might be forced to reinstate them and pay them back wages or pay them compensation for their lost wages and benefits if the complainant elects not to be reinstated. Whistleblowers are also entitled to file lawsuits if they experience retaliation and may be entitled to damages for emotional distress as well as compensation for other harm they experience as a result of reporting misconduct.

The Process of Reporting and Protection under California Law

Reporting illegal or unethical activity should focus on the safety of the employee preparing to report the activity.

  • The whistleblower should ensure that they have accurate documentation of the illegal or unethical activity. At this point, it would be appropriate to consult legal counsel to ensure that privileged or otherwise confidential information is not accidentally included in the complaint and to verify that the actions are, in fact, illegal.
  • Next, they should identify the appropriate authority to whom they should report, whether that’s a person in their workplace, a regulatory body, or the media.
  • The whistleblower should then make a complaint and continue documenting any further actions by their employer, whether those actions continue the reported behavior or retaliate against the whistleblower.
  • The whistleblower should also keep a record of all damages resulting from any retaliation they experience, whether their employer officially retaliates or if they fail to prevent coworkers from retaliating.
  • At any point where the employee faces retaliation for whistleblowing, they should seek legal advice to ensure that they are protected under the law and have recourse against retaliatory acts.

California law provides protections for whistleblowers from the start of the process with the initial report through to the end, after all investigations, including if legal proceedings become necessary. 

The California Supreme Court has placed the burden of proof regarding retaliation on the employer, not the employee, meaning that whistleblowers no longer have to prove the actions they experience were, in fact, retaliation, but that the employer must prove that any actions done to the whistleblower were not retaliatory in nature. California also provides strict rules regarding possible civil liabilities, including up to $10,000 in fines for each act of retaliation and up to a year of jail time. The whistleblower may also initiate further civil proceedings to cure other damages they experience.

Talk to the Law Offices of Todd M. Friedman, P.C., About Retaliation

Whistleblowers provide a vital service in ensuring that businesses and governing bodies are following the law while also remaining ethical. California offers several avenues of reporting as well as providing strong protections against retaliation via the California Whistleblower Protection Act and sections of the California Labor Code, which not only detail several forms of prohibited activities but provide legal recourse for individuals who have experienced retaliation.

The Law Offices of Todd M. Friedman, P.C. are available to help you if you believe you have experienced retaliation for whistleblowing activities in California. Please contact us for a consultation about your case.

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