Practical Tips for the Whistleblower

Whistleblowers are responsible for uncovering 43 percent of all corporate and government fraud, according to a Price Waterhouse study. This is more than all of the fraud uncovered by law enforcement and outside auditors combined. So, whistleblowing plays an important role in keeping corporations honest, and rooting out the bad guys and ladies from society.

When should you consider yourself a possible whistleblower? The answer is "as soon as you can." The sooner you identify that you might have a whistleblowing situation, the better you can manage your situation. If you are not on your toes, and you don't protect yourself, you can find yourself out of a job with no recourse and no case.

So, what should you do if you believe your employer is violating the law? The answer is complex and depends on the fact of each case. However, a few general rules may apply.

  • Stay alert. Keep your eyes and ears open If you receive a communication that you believe is suggestive of illegal activity, make a written note of it in a confidential diary. If you receive e-mails that you believe reflect something illegal, make hard copies of the e-mails and put them in a safe place. You may need them later.
  • Consult with a lawyer. Consider contacting an attorney immediately to determine if the conduct is illegal, and, if so, how to report it most effectively.
  • Consider making an informal complaint to your supervisor. Many supervisors are law abiding and honest people. Many situations can be managed by making a straightforward complaint to your immediate supervisor. If you do make a verbal complaint, made some kind of record of it.
  • Use the Internal Hotline. Many corporations have internal hotlines that you can use to make a complaint. These hotlines are supposed to be confidential, but many are not. Many employees make anonymous complaints on the hotline and later find out that their supervisors or others in management are aware of the complaint and who made it. In most situations, the complaint made on the hotline does not result in any meaningful response by the employer. Many hotlines are manned by outside contractors, or low-level HR personnel.
  • Consider making a complaint to HR. If the company has a personnel handbook, review it to determine the procedures you are supposed to use to make complaints. If the handbook instructs you to make your complaint to HR, consider putting it into writing Let's face it-most HR departments exist to protect the interests of the employer, not to enforce your rights. Therefore, you should view HR as "one and the same" as your employer. If you put the complaint in writing, be as specific as you can.
  • Do not tape record. Many employees believe that tape recording their supervisors or managers during private conversations is a great way to "catch them." However, generally, it is illegal in California under Penal Code Section 632 to tape record a private conversation. In fact, it's a felony. So leave your tape recorder at home.
  • Don't do anything illegal or silly. Expect that, if your case proceeds further, the employer will try to present every fact at its disposal to discredit your and may even attempt to intimidate you. So, don't do anything that would be a violation of any company policy, do your job, and obey your supervisor's instructions. Employers are always looking for a reason to get rid of employees they don't like for a legal reason. If you give then a legal reason (such as failure to comply with deadlines, failure to meet objectives, insubordination, fighting, etc.) rest assured they will try to convince a judge or jury that the reason for your termination had nothing to do with your exercise of free speech rights, or your complaints of illegal activity, and that you were terminated for good cause. So don't give them any "good cause" to fire you, demote you, or subject you to a negative performance evaluation.

Next up: Statutes of Limitations for Other Whistleblower Cases