When Congress passed the Whistleblower Act of 1989, it intended to protect federal employees who spoke up about wrongdoing in government operations. Without that protection, employees would stay silent for fear of getting demoted or losing their jobs. Government corruption could easily fester if there were no protections in place to prevent retaliation.

Still, retaliation against government whistleblowers persists. A report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) examined federal employment data from 2014 to 2018. It found that federal whistleblowers are terminated at a rate at least 10 times higher than those who don’t rock the boat. In some cases, that rate was nearly 17 times higher.

The numbers are alarming enough to give many would-be whistleblowers pause. Nobody wants to risk their job, especially in these uncertain economic times.

Who is most at risk?

The GAO report examined termination rates among both probationary and permanent federal employees.

In the federal government, probationary employees undergo a “trial period” for one to two years. This step provides a more in-depth opportunity to evaluate whether the employee is the right fit for the job. Permanent appointment grants the employee more rights with regard to their employment status, appeals and other due process protections.

Probationary employees are entitled to the same whistleblower protections as permanent employees. Nevertheless, the GAO report found that probationary employees were terminated at far higher rates than their permanent counterparts. It breaks down the numbers by the most conservative (lowest) estimated rates. According to the data:

  • 17.4 percent of probationary employees who filed retaliation complaints were terminated, versus 5.5 percent of permanent employees who filed complaints
  • The overall termination rate for probationary employees was 1.1 percent, versus 0.3 percent of permanent employees

What it means

It is essential to set up the waste, fraud and abuse reporting of misconduct properly and to word it correctly. When doing so, employees—both probationary and career—have protections. In addition, if singled out based on protected status, they are covered by federal EEOC. Consult with an employment lawyer about how to report while protecting yourself.