At any time an employee witnesses an action or misconduct, then reports that to the authorities, they may be protected against retaliation which their employer may carry out.
Any employee who reports that their employer violated either state or federal law becomes a whistleblower. The act that violates a law may be against the employee who reports this act, such as sexual harassment. Or, it may be a broader violation, such as violating the regulations enforced by the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA).
The term “whistleblower” is used because the reporting employee is alerting state or federal officials to a violation of law, just as police officers used to use a whistle to get the attention of fellow officers.
Where whistleblower protection laws come from
Whistleblower protection laws may be written into federal Acts, such as the Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the Clean Air Act and others. At the time these Acts were drafted into bills, the Congresspersons who wrote them may have had in mind employees who would report future violations against the Acts.
Employees may complain directly to their employer or to the appropriate federal agency about the violation they witnessed. Employees may also be protected under Acts as long as they have a “good-faith belief” that their employer has violated the law. By filing their complaints in compliance with these requirements, the employee may be protected. This protection may be valid even if the employer did not violate the law.
The employee has a retaliation defense
Employers may violate either state or federal law when they retaliate against an employee who turns whistleblower. It doesn’t matter what form the retaliation may take, their employee may be legally protected. Retaliation may include discrimination, demotion or termination.