General Information About Whistleblowing and Retaliation

Iff you have information that your employer is violating laws or regulations, or if your employer is causing danger to public health and safety, you may feel obligated to report this information. If you do so, then you may be considered a whistleblower. There are many state and federal laws in place that protect whistleblowers from retaliation by their employers. Read this page to get general information about what constitutes whistleblowing, what actions by an employer are considered retaliation, and how anti-retaliation laws can protect you when you do the right thing and report wrongdoing.


Whistleblowing is reporting illegal or unsafe conduct at work to the authorities. For example, a whistleblower may report that their organization is violating antidiscrimination laws, committing fraud, or violating local safety regulations. Depending on the circumstances, whistleblowing is considered to be a “protected activity.”

Retaliation is when an employer takes adverse action against an employee for engaging in a protected activity, like whistleblowing. Retaliation may also include prohibiting or discouraging employees from engaging in protected activity. Oftentimes this adverse action deters others from exercising their right to report illegal activity. Examples of retaliation include:

  • Termination
  • Demotion
  • Salary reduction
  • Loss of hours
  • Exclusion
  • Loss of benefits

Many violations of the law, and many dangers to public health and safety, go unreported because people who know about them are afraid of retaliation. As our livelihoods, and often our health insurance, are dependent on our jobs, the fear of losing a job is pervasive. Whenever the law provides a remedy for victims of retaliation, it encourages employees to come forward with evidence that will make our world safer, healthier, and more just.

Many, if not most, of the laws that protect workers, such as antidiscrimination laws, wage and hour protections, and health and safety laws, also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against someone who engages in conduct which the law protects. Many laws protecting the public at large, such as environmental laws, taxpayer-funded programs, and government regulation of certain industries, such as nuclear power, trucking, and airlines, protect employees who disclose information that the employee reasonably believes is evidence of illegality, gross waste or fraud, gross mismanagement, abuse of power, or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.

Whistleblower and antiretaliation laws protect all employees who report illegal conduct of any employer, employment agency, or labor organization. This includes applicants, current employees, and former employees. For example, an employer cannot refuse to hire an applicant because she had filed a retaliation complaint against her former employer.

Additionally, whistleblower and antiretaliation laws protect employees regardless of their citizenship or work authorization status. For example, suppose an employer suspects an employee is undocumented. If that employee files a sexual harassment claim, antiretaliation laws prohibit the employer from threatening to expose that employee’s immigration status as punishment for filing the claim.

Although whistleblower and retaliation claims are often discussed interchangeably, and claims brought by whistleblowers generally involve retaliation by an employer, there is a difference between the two types of claims.

Whistleblowing complaints focus on conduct prohibited by a specific law and/or conduct that may cause damage to public safety, waste tax dollars, or violate public trust in an honest, accountable government. Whistleblower complaints seldom include an employer’s retaliation for complaints about personal dislikes or issues that affect only a single person.

However, laws governing the workplace that guarantee rights to each individual worker, such as the right to be free from discrimination, the right to be paid minimum and overtime wages, and the right to join a union do address the rights of an individual worker to enforce their personal legal rights under the law, and to support others who enforce their personal legal rights. If employers interfere with those rights in illegal ways, the individual can bring a retaliation claim to vindicate those individual rights.

In this section of our website, we have compiled information on the most common laws which make it illegal to retaliate and/or protect whistleblowers. You should start with the basic premise that many laws which protect employees prevent retaliation for enforcing those rights, and that many laws which protect the public prevent retaliation against those who blow the whistle on those violating those laws.

However, if your situation does not fit the laws that are described here, we urge you to talk to a lawyer in your state, as some states have additional whistleblower and/or anti-retaliation protections that are not listed here. If you have taken action concerning the following subjects or have the described employment status, choose the listed page for more details.

With some variations among the laws, most whistleblower and anti-retaliation laws will require that a victim prove these elements:

  • That you engaged in protected activity, such as reporting a violation, testifying as a witness, or some other action to help enforce the law (although if you suffered retaliation because the boss mistakenly fingered you as the whistleblower, you may still have a claim)
  • That the employer knew or believed you took such protected activity
  • That you suffered an adverse employment action
  • That your protected activity caused the employer to take adverse action

State laws vary on the scope of protected activity. Some state laws only protect formal complaints to specific agencies. Others have a “fair play” provision, requiring employees to report wrongdoing to their employers first so they have an opportunity to address it. It may be difficult for an employee to prove retaliation if they were fired after threatening to sue their employer for illegal workplace conduct; at least one court has held that employees are only protected if they file a complaint. See this summary of state whistleblowing laws.

On a federal level, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, also known as Title VII, protects employees for (1) participating in proceedings to enforce the law and (2) opposing unlawful discrimination. It protects anyone who files an unlawful discrimination charge or who serves as a witness – regardless of whether the claim prevails. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from punishing, or “retaliating” against, employees for communicating and opposing what the employee reasonably believes is a violation of the law.

Protection for whistleblowers can start from the point evidence suggests an employer is aware of the employee’s opposition to their illegal conduct. Examples of protected actions include filing a grievance, contacting media sources, refusing to perform illegal assignments, and making a complaint that reveals an intention to enforce the law.

Yes. If you get into an argument with a supervisor about what is or is not legal on the job, and you punch the supervisor, you are not protected from being fired for punching the supervisor.

Courts have recognized that protected activity may be associated with “impulsive behavior.” Employees cannot be disciplined for protected activity so long as it is lawful and the character of the conduct is not indefensible in its context. A key inquiry is whether the employee has upset the balance that must be maintained between protected activity and workplace discipline. If the employee’s behavior oversteps the defensible bounds of conduct, the employee can lose the protections of the law. For example, one employee lost an antiretaliation lawsuit after swearing at a supervisor, refusing to change conduct, and daring employer to fire the employee. So, it’s important to keep your cool.

In fact, the 8th Circuit recently adopted the “reasonable employee standard” for Sarbanes-Oxley Act whistleblower claims. The 8th Circuit stated that a whistle blowing employee is not protected from retaliation under SOX if a reasonable person, in the same position and with the same training and experience, would not have believed there was a securities violation to report. This is also known as the Sylvester standard from the case of Sylvester v. Parexel Int’l.

Especially where the whistleblower has tried to be anonymous, it may be hard to prove the employer has knowledge of the protected activity. Still, some courts will use inferences to deduce who the employer may have suspected. If you were among a select few who had the necessary information and the courage to speak up, that might be enough for a judge to “infer” employer knowledge. Sometimes, the employer’s investigation or interrogation of an employee can reveal the employer has knowledge of the protected activity.

To avoid this problem, some sophisticated whistleblowers will announce their protected activities. If they disclose copies of evidence to an agency, they can send a copy to the employer by certified mail. Certified mail has the advantage of creating a document that shows the date the employer received the item. If the retaliation occurs shortly after the whistleblowing (say within six months, or sometimes longer), then the timing alone may persuade a judge that the employer’s true motive was because of the whistleblowing. However, if you are blowing the whistle on criminal activity, it would be best to get experienced legal advice before disclosing your protected activities. Disclosure can have the effect of telling the crooks that the cops are coming after them – which could be a form of obstruction of justice.

A few state laws provide a remedy only for discharges. Most anti-retaliation laws provide remedies for any discrimination or “adverse employment action.” Courts have varied on what constitutes an “adverse employment action.” Usually, any action that costs the worker money will be an adverse employment action. Discharges, of course, cost the victim money. So do demotions and denials of overtime, promotions, or benefits. Formal discipline is generally accepted as an adverse employment action. Courts are inconsistent on whether they will allow a remedy for a bad evaluation, denial of a transfer, changes in hours or work location, hostile remarks, denial of parking privileges, and other changes that do not reduce a worker’s paycheck. Some laws clearly prohibit any discrimination in employment.

While the legal rights of employees have increased, so has the sophistication of bosses who want to retaliate. Instead of discharging a whistleblower, they look for more subtle ways to apply pressure. Promotions or transfers may evaporate. Discipline can increase. Hostile remarks can make you feel unwelcome, like you are an outsider. Isolated incidents can come together to paint a picture that it is time to go.

Can the employer convey the need to quit with measures that are safe enough to avoid legal action? Across the country, bosses and workers are playing cat and mouse to find out. The courts have applied the same doctrines used in sexual harassment cases to protect workers who stand up for their rights. When courts conclude that the employer was trying to get the worker to quit, or made working conditions intolerable, then they declare a “constructive discharge,” and allow the victim full remedies after quitting. However, these doctrines are not yet specific enough to protect everyone who felt forced out.

In cases that have been decided on this issue, the employee has a high bar to clear. It is often difficult for an employee to prove the employer made workplace conditions severe enough to qualify as a constructive dismissal, and it is also hard to prove it was connected to whistleblowing if the employer fabricated some other reason for their response. For example, a judge ruled an employee did not manage to prove this when he alleged he started getting negative performance evaluations for the first time in 30 years after expressing concern about improper test runs for vehicles he helped manufacture.

For more information on harassment and constructive discharge, see our site’s harassment page.

Causation can be proved either by direct evidence or by an inference.

Direct evidence is evidence that the employer was mad at the protected activity. If you or another witness saw a supervisor spout off about someone reporting a violation, that is direct evidence of the employer’s “animus” against protected activity. Similarly, if the employer announces that whoever calls the government will be fired, or warns employees against reporting violations, that is direct evidence of retaliation.

A worker may have a strong case even without any direct evidence. In some cases, causation is obvious. The boss runs into the office yelling about the so- and-so who reported a violation of the law. Norma Rae raises her hand and announces that she made the call. The boss fires her on the spot. The timing and personal animus make the retaliation clear. Everyone knows that it is illegal to fire workers just because they are black or female, or because they organized a union. When the employer knows that it is illegal to fire someone for a certain reason, they will usually try to cover it up. Still, advocates remain amazed at the cases where bosses put an illegal reason in writing, such as:

  • We had to fire him because he called the EPA on us.
  • She discussed our wage policies with co-workers.

In other cases, unlawful retaliation can be inferred from:

  • timing (how soon it occurred after the employer learned about the protected activity),
  • animus (the boss getting mad at the protected activity),
  • deviation from normal practices (people are not usually fired for this reason, or in this manner,
  • changing explanations,
  • a pattern of adverse actions against those who speak up, or
  • the use of false evidence.

No. Unfortunately, whistleblower and anti-retaliation laws generally take on the same rights and remedies as the law relating to the underlying right they protect, which means that they can vary widely from one another. Some laws, like the Fair Labor Standards Act, gave victims of retaliation direct access to courts to enforce their rights to reinstatement, back pay and other remedies. Other laws, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the new Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, require victims to file first with an agency, but then allow access to the courts if the agency does not resolve the complaint within six months.

Since each law with an employee protection is unique, victims of retaliation may face a patchwork of procedures and possibilities. Employees who have the confidence to speak up sometimes have opposed various kinds of unlawful activity. For example, a member of a union safety committee may engage in concerted union activity, oppose an environmental violation, and complain about unsafe working conditions — all with the same phone call to one agency.

In some cases, the activist may have opposed various kinds of unlawful conduct in separate actions. When the employer finally snaps, it may be hard to tell which protected activity provoked the retaliation. In these situations, it is hard to tell which law will be applied, or which will provide the best remedy. The employer, when faced with a variety of charges, will argue that the victim made inconsistent claims and none of them have merit. Special attention, therefore, is required to make each complaint explain how the protected activity that provoked retaliation is protected by all of the laws asserted.

The analysis of which legal claim to pursue must start with a sincere attempt to understand why the employer retaliated.

  • Did the decision maker state his or her reasons?
  • Has the employer stated in writing a reason that is illegal?
  • Do the circumstances of timing, animosity, or a pattern reveal what the employer’s true motives are?
  • If your company has a progressive discipline policy, was it speeded up or ignored in your case?
  • Have other employees been fired for whistleblowing or retaliatory reasons?

If the clues point clearly to one particular unlawful reason, then it is usually best to pursue the remedies under the law that makes that reason unlawful. Other considerations can include:

  • whether you have missed time limits to enforce some rights,
  • whether the enforcement agency has a reputation of being effective or not,
  • the remedies that are available, and
  • the familiarity you or your attorney have with each process.

Some laws completely omit any protections for employees to help enforce those laws. Tragically, the laws governing our health care, food and drugs contain no employee protections. In some cases, courts have applied the laws against fraud, unsafe work conditions, or pollution to reach these situations, but some courageous whistleblowers still find that they have no legal relief. One example of a strong state whistleblower law is the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act . Our work continues to improve these laws, so that they are closer to New Jersey’s example.

Each law that provides a remedy also sets a time limit to file a written complaint to start an enforcement action. Lawyers call this time limit the “statute of limitations.” In each case, the time limit requires that a complaint be written, and that it contains some description of the claim. This is typically a statement of the adverse action and the law claimed to be violated, like “I was fired because I complained about race discrimination.” It must also name the company or individuals who violated the anti-retaliation law, and provide their address or other contact information. Each law, however, sets different procedures for how and where the complaint is filed, whether it must be mailed or received by the deadline, and whether it can be amended or supplemented later.

In some cases, the time limits are surprisingly short:

  • Union contracts may require filing a grievance in as little as three (3) days after each adverse action,
  • State and local employees may have time limits as short as ten (10) days to enforce their civil service protections,
  • Federal environmental laws require that a written complaint be filed with OSHA within thirty (30) days of each adverse action,
  • Federal employees complaining of EEO violations must make their first complaint to their agency’s EEO officer within forty-five (45) days of each adverse action,
  • Other laws have time limits at 90, 180, or 300 days, or any number of years from 1 to 6.

So, to plan what action you will file, you need to consider the possible laws, and when the earliest deadline is. Sometimes it is good to take time to assess the case and the possible claims before applying for unemployment compensation. The application for unemployment compensation will usually ask for a statement of the reason for separation from employment. The stated reason should be consistent with the claims you will make later in court. Before the deadline to file your action arrives, you will need to have a plan to prove that the other side broke the particular law under which you are making a claim.

You can find more information on how to file a retaliation complaint here.

While it is often ultimately up to the whistleblower themselves to pursue legal action against an employer for retaliation, the United States Department of Labor has five federal agencies that enforce whistleblower protections.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) protects reports such as those relating to employer and consumer safety. See their whistleblower program for more information.

The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) encompasses many discriminatory situations, such as those based on race or disability. See the Department of Labor website for more information.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) protects miners. See the Department of Labor website for more information.

The Wage and Hour Division (WHD) concerns rights such as minimum wage and medical leave. See the Department of Labor website for more information.

The Veterans Employment and Training Service (VET) prohibits retaliation due to an employee’s military status. See their whistleblower protection program for more information.

Department of Justice. Whistleblowers perform an important service for the public and the Department of Justice when they report evidence of wrongdoing. All Departent of Justice employees, contractors, subcontractors, grantees, subgrantees, and personal services contractors are protected from retaliation for making a protected disclosure. See the Department of Justice website for more information.

More information, such as how to contact these agencies and who is protected under them, can be found on the Department of Labor’s website.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.