What should you do if the whistle blows?


Over the weekend, you saw a movie about a whistleblower who retired in luxury after winning a multimillion-dollar settlement. The movie left you wondering how your company would handle such a situation. What strategies should you use if an employee complains of corporate misconduct?


From the company's perspective, the goal is to minimize the damage to both the whistleblower and the organization by taking swift, constructive action to get to the bottom of the situation and by imposing appropriate disciplinary or corrective action on wrongdoers. Employees whose complaints about corporate misconduct receive a fair hearing and who know that the wrongdoers will be punished will be much less likely to go to a federal agency or the local newspaper with their stories.

Here are some strategies that can help keep the damage to a minimum while discouraging unethical conduct:

  • Avoid retaliation in any form against employees who have reported suspected unethical conduct. Educate supervisors and managers so that they will be alert to the warning signs that an employee is being retaliated against. Make sure all employees know that the company will not tolerate retaliation.

  • Have a written policy that covers all aspects of reporting corporate misconduct. Emphasize that you welcome reports of illegal actions, and describe the channels that employees can use for filing complaints.

  • Assign someone to handle reports of unethical conduct with objectivity and confidentiality. You might hire someone specifically to be an ombudsperson, or you might assign that job to a senior person on the HR or security staff or to your company attorney.

  • Establish an appeals process for employees who are not satisfied with the company's handling of their complaints. There should be at least one additional level of review. Remember, the goal is to resolve the problem to everyone's satisfaction — not to push the employee to file a lawsuit or complain to the press.

  • Encourage internal reporting of suspected misconduct and investigate all such complaints immediately. When employees see that the company takes their complaints seriously, they'll have more faith in the internal review process.

  • Review all discharge and disciplinary decisions to make sure that they aren't retaliatory in nature. Don't let a supervisor discipline or discharge a whistleblower until the decision can be reviewed by legal counsel.

Although the Whistleblower Protection Act covers only federal employees, there are many other federal and state laws with built-in whistleblower protections to make even private employers cautious when confronted with an employee who has uncovered evidence of corporate wrongdoing. If such claims turn out to be valid, the best approach is to face them head-on.

Source: The Practical Guide to Employment Law, by Mark R. Filipp, May 2013.

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