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Who qualifies as a 'whistleblower' in California?

A previous post here discussed our law firm's efforts to protect "whistleblower" employees in private California businesses. While the post applauded the bravery of workers who come forward and report their employer's violations of the law, it might be worth clarifying further who qualifies as a whistleblower under California law.

An employee cannot expect that every concern reported will make that employee a whistleblower subject to legal protection from getting fired or otherwise treated badly at work. For example, employees are not whistleblowers if they report on the personal indiscretions of a boss, such as a tendency to drive too fast or drink too much, assuming those do not directly affect the operating of the business.

California law does protect employees who, in connection with work, report a violation of state, local or federal laws, so long as the employee has a "reasonable cause" to believe such a violation has occurred. While reasonable cause requires an employee to have some grounds for making a report, an employee shouldn't be expected to have to play detective before making a report. Employees also have the right to report unsafe conditions or procedures at work, even if they are not "illegal," strictly speaking.

In addition to being allowed to go to the authorities, employees also have the right to report a violation internally, either to supervisors or to someone who might not have direct authority over the employees but who does have the responsibility of making sure the company complies with the law.

Whistleblowers in California have legal rights so that they can report violations of the law through the proper channels. A person who is contemplating making such a report should be aware of what does and does not count as "whistleblowing."