A whistleblower is someone who reports or exposes illegal or unethical behavior for the purpose of putting an end to that behavior. Certain federal and North Carolina laws provide specific protection for whistleblowers. You are entitled to whistleblower protection if you file certain kinds of complaints exposing fraud or other illegal activity. Employers are prohibited from retaliating against whistleblowers in any way.
Whistleblowing can take a number of different forms:
- Filing reports or complaints with government agencies
- Complaining to internal departments within your company
- Making statements to auditors or outside investigators
- Reporting workplace injuries or safety infractions
- Reporting discrimination, harassment, or policy violations
- Complaining about unfair treatment from a supervisor
You do not need to prove beyond doubt the basis for your complaint or report in order to qualify for whistleblower protection. In other words, if you file a complaint or report with a reason to believe its validity but its later dismissed by a judge or ruled invalid by a government agency, this does not give your employer the right to retaliate against you. For this reason, you should not withhold what you believe to be a legitimate complaint.
If you have performed any kind of legally-protected activity (filing a complaint or report as outlined above), you are entitled to be protected from retaliation in all forms. Your employer cannot fire you, take disciplinary action, reduce your pay, deny benefits, or treat you unfavorably because you “blew the whistle” on wrongful practices. Sometimes, employers retaliate against employees by “singling them out.” In other words, if your supervisor suddenly starts disciplining you for a breach of policy—but overlooks the same infraction on the part of others—this may signal retaliatory intent. The available whistleblower protection laws provide recourse for situations like this.
Hostile Work Environments
There are subtle forms of retaliation that can take place when whistleblowing is involved. Rather than take official punitive action, an employer may intentionally make your work environment uncomfortable or neglect to discipline hostile or bullying employees. This is not always easy to prove in a court of law, but if you feel that your job has become uncomfortable since you filed a report or complaint, retaliation may be involved.
Intimidation and Implied Threats
An employer might also create a hostile work environment for the purpose of deterring whistleblowing. Intimidation, or the implied threat of retaliation, is also illegal—but it does happen. For example, this can look like spreading rumors among co-workers designed to create fear of filing reports, or making statements designed to imply that someone was fired or disciplined for filing a report or complaint. There are even cases where threats of violence have been used to stifle whistleblowing.