November 2021 (Chicago, IL)
Exposing corruption, unethical behavior or misconduct within an organization provides tremendous value to the local community. Employees who report workplace misconduct – often referred to as “whistleblowers” – help to keep the powerful and unscrupulous in check, making sure that fellow and future employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders are protected against illegal activity that threatens public safety, health and financial well-being.
Despite its ethical nature and value to the public, whistleblowing can jeopardize an employee’s job security or personal safety. Whistleblowers place themselves at considerable risk of victimization and punitive actions by their employer.
Before you expose wrongdoing or misconduct at your workplace, it is important to understand your rights as an employee and how to protect yourself against employer retaliation.
What Is Whistleblower Retaliation?
Whistleblower retaliation involves any adverse action that a company takes against an employee because he or she has reported illegal conduct on the part of a company.
Termination is an extreme form of retaliation, but other actions, such as demotions, removing responsibilities, or withholding benefits may be prohibited by laws that protect employees from retaliation.
Reporting workplace violations to authorities often results in some form of financial loss for the employer, due to expenses related to retaining legal counsel, fines, remediation, etc. In response, the employer may retaliate against their whistleblower employee in a variety of ways, including:
- Denial of pay or benefits
How to Determine If You’ve Been Retaliated Against
- Is retaliation costing you?
Being terminated can cause you tremendous economic and emotional distress, but so can the denial of a promotion, an involuntary transfer, or the removal of previous responsibilities. Negative performance reviews can also inflict substantial harm on an employee, since raises and bonuses are often based on positive reviews and feedback.
- Did your work environment change?
The first sign of retaliation is often a subtle change in the employee’s work environment. Retaliation can occur not just in the form it takes but from its timing. Employers may apply newsure gradually, hoping that the whistleblower gets tired of the mistreatment and quits on their own accord.
- Is your employer affecting your ability to work?
Your employer may retaliate against you by taking other actions to deter you from staying at your job or that may affect your employment. This includes threats, increased surveillance, or spreading negative information about you throughout the company.
Actions that constitute whistleblower retaliation by your employer may be difficult to identify, especially if you are unfamiliar with the statutes that protect specific forms of whistleblowing. If you are uncertain whether the action your employer has taken is sufficient to pursue a whistleblower retaliation claim, your next step should be to gather facts about your employer’s actions and speak with an experienced attorney who can assess your situation.
Whistleblower Protection Laws
Because whistleblowers provide an important public service, there are multiple federal and state laws designed to protect them. Since it is in the best interest of the community to address workplace violations – whether they are legal, financial, or safety-related – the federal government and many state governments have enacted laws which encourage reporting by providing whistleblowers with protection against employer retaliation.
The Illinois Whistleblower Act offers specific protections to employees who can present evidence of misconduct occurring at their workplace. Under the Illinois Whistleblower Act, it is illegal for an employer to:
- Retaliate against an employee who reports information to a law enforcement or government agency when they hold a reasonable belief that a violation of federal or state law has occurred.
- Retaliate against an employee who refuses to participate in activities that violate federal or state laws.
- Enact policies that prevent employees from disclosing violations of federal or state laws to a law enforcement or government agency.
Aside from the Illinois Whistleblower Act, there are various laws within specific industries that function to protect employees from retaliation for reporting illegal activities.
How Whistleblowers Can Help Ensure Their Job Security
Whistleblowers should take the following steps to ensure their safety and job security:
- Document Everything
Your case against wrongdoing observed in the workplace as well as unlawful retaliation will be much stronger when supported by hard evidence. Take detailed notes of all actions, conversations, and meetings in which you observe your employer’s wrongdoing and/or your employer’s retaliatory actions against you. To prevent your employer from having access to the notes or disabling your access to them, never store information on a workplace computer or email account. There are important caveats to consider when collecting evidence against either employer wrongdoing or unlawful retaliation, and it’s strongly recommended that you seek counsel from an attorney to understand them.
- Understand The Statute of Limitations
If you feel that retaliatory action has been taken against you because of your whistleblowing actions, you will need to file a complaint against your employer within a certain timeframe. This timeframe begins on the day of your employer’s retaliatory action and is referred to as the “statute of limitations.” Your statute of limitations will vary depending on the particular statute applicable to your circumstances; some statutes of limitation are significantly shorter than others, requiring you to act quickly to address your grievances. Certain whistleblower complaints must be initially filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), even when the complaints are not related to occupational safety. The counsel of a legal professional is strongly encouraged during this process.
- Contact a Legal Expert
Consulting a legal expert is a critical part of properly navigating the process, ensuring that your rights are protected, and understanding whether your case qualifies for litigation. Although several whistleblower protection laws exist at both federal and state levels, it’s important to note that not all whistleblowing is considered ‘protected activity’. Similarly, a causality must exist between your actions and the punitive actions of your employer. Whistleblowers should seek counsel from an experienced attorney as soon as possible – your attorney can assess whether your retaliation lawsuit is viable.
Seeking Justice Against Whistleblower Retaliation
Whistleblowing can bring serious consequences to both employers and employees. Illinois employers facing a claim filed under the Illinois Whistleblower Act, the federal False Claims Act, or any of the countless additional whistleblower and retaliation laws, can face substantial financial liability if found guilty. Employees who uncover what they believe to be evidence of wrongful acts, who report illegal acts, or who are encouraged or ordered to commit illegal acts themselves, face a great deal of risk in reporting that wrongdoing. The employment law attorneys at the Herbert Law Firm understand the risks faced by both sides.
Ethical actions should never be a hindrance to job security or personal safety. Hiring an attorney with experience in litigating whistleblower protection cases is a crucial first step for those considering reporting wrongdoing in their workplace.
Don’t let workplace discrimination, harassment, or retaliation disrupt your life, career, or future. Request a free, no-obligation legal consultation to discuss your case with an employment discrimination lawyer at Herbert Law Firm.
Call us at 312-655-7660 or contact us online at danherbertlaw.com/contact.