The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) defines a whistleblower as someone who informs the authorities about a person or organization engaged in illegal or unacceptable behavior. OSHA’s whistleblower laws protect employees from employer retaliation, such as dismissal, discipline, harassment, and demotion. California has additional Whistleblower laws that also come into play.
Employers often have two very different perspectives when it comes to whistleblowers. Some wish to encourage their employees to come forward if they witness issues in the workplace, while others might see whistleblowers as a threat.
Regardless of these perspectives, all employers must take great care whenever they are faced with a whistleblower complaint. So, here is a brief overview of how employers should handle these situations within their company.
REVIEW THE WHISTLEBLOWER POLICY
It is critical to be proactive. Even if employers do not have a complaint on their hands currently, they should review their whistleblower program. For example, employers should consider:
- What message does the company policy send?
- Does the company have an anonymous hotline employees can use?
- How do employers train supervisors to handle whistleblower reports?
- What is the company’s policy on retaliation?
Creating a program that responds to employee complaints effectively and efficiently can make all the difference to prevent a lawsuit. Forbes provides some advice that employers can review to create an effective whistleblower program.
PLAN THE INVESTIGATION CAREFULLY
Employers must take the claims seriously by conducting a proper investigation of the claims to gather the facts. It is always important for employers to:
- Craft a strategy for the investigation before starting, but act with efficiency;
- Determine whether they should start an internal investigation, or bring in a third-party;
- Remain objective while conducting interviews with employees; and
- Protect the whistleblower’s anonymity during the investigation.
It is natural for employers to feel the need to defend their company when whistleblowers come forward. However, employers must take great care to make rational decisions to avoid violating the whistleblower’s rights. This can help to protect the company in the long run.
KEEP UP TO DATE WITH RETALIATION LAWS
California law prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who engage in protected actions, such as blowing the whistle. Preventing retaliation is essential since whistleblower complaints can become exponentially worse for a company if they experience illegal retaliation.
Additionally, employers should also understand all of the protections whistleblowers have in California. This has two primary benefits, including:
- Understanding precisely when whistleblowers can take action, and whether they followed the proper legal process; and
- Knowing what actions they can take without facing legal consequences.
If employers ensure they comply with the law, then they are on track to reduce the risk their company faces.