Whistleblower protections are important workplace protections so that workers can report wrongdoing or illegal activity they witness in their workplaces. In general, whistleblower protections prohibit employers from retaliating against an employee who reports illegal, dangerous or unethical activity.

Employees who witness illegal or questionable activities at work may understandably worry about keeping their jobs. Because of this, employees should understand the whistleblower protections both in their state and at the federal level. For example, while federal whistleblower protection laws protect federal workers, state workers in Wisconsin are protected by state whistleblower laws.

What actions do whistleblower laws prohibit employers from taking?

Employers are prohibited from retaliating against an employee who reports illegal workplace activity and some other types of activity. Employers are prohibited from initiating, administering or threatening to take retaliatory action if the employee discloses:

  • A violation of state or federal law;
  • A violation of a state or federal rule;
  • A violation of a state or federal regulation;
  • Mismanagement or abuse of authority;
  • A substantial waste of public funds; or
  • A danger to public health or safety.

What does retaliation look like and what can employees do?

After workers make a whistleblower claim, it is critical to understand that they have rights. Workers who believe they have been retaliated against can file a complaint with their state agency or department, with OSHA or with another state or federal agency depending on the nature of their claim. According to OSHA, retaliatory actions can consist of:

  • Firing, laying off or demoting an employee
  • Denying overtime pay or benefits
  • Intimating, harassing or otherwise threatening an employee
  • Disciplining
  • Reducing the employee’s hours or pay

Some forms of retaliation can be more subtle than others. However, employers are prohibited from retaliating in any way against workers who blow the whistle. Upon the employee reporting retaliation to the appropriate agency, employers could face penalties including fines.

Employees are protected in their workplaces when they make the difficult decision to report illegal or wrongful activity. Workers need to be familiar with how whistleblower protections can help them when they fear retaliation from an employer.