Imagine you work for a company that contracts with the federal government. You’ve had strong suspicions about your boss fudging the numbers, cheating the government out of thousands or even millions of dollars. But now, you have proof: a paper trail showing doctored invoices. What should you do? Report your boss to HR? What if the whole company is in on it? Could your job be at stake?

This scenario, while hypothetical, illustrates a common dilemma whistleblowers face.

Internal whistleblowing

One option is to report the misconduct internally, whether to your human resources department, a trusted manager, in-house legal counsel or another member of the company. Many companies have formal policies for reporting misconduct. They may even allow you to do so anonymously.

However, going this route does have risks. Your concerns could be swept under the rug. You could face subtle or overt retaliation – something that happens far too often, even though it’s illegal.

External whistleblowing

Many whistleblowers opt to take their concerns outside the company, reporting the misconduct directly to the appropriate government agency. For misconduct that involves fraud against the federal government, it may be possible to file a lawsuit (or “qui tam” claim) under the federal False Claims Act and pursue a financial reward for bringing the misconduct to light.

Which is better?

There is no easy answer; it depends on your situation. Your best bet is to talk with an employment lawyer as soon as you uncover evidence of misconduct, before you decide what to do with it.

An outside lawyer will owe you a duty of confidentiality – a valuable protection that isn’t available with your company’s attorney or corporate counsel (who represents the company, not you). A knowledgeable attorney can give you nuanced guidance based on all the factors at play in your situation.