The Ethics Resource Center, a nonprofit research group that promotes high ethical standards in the workplace, issued a report recently that reveals both positive and negative developments in the widespread effort to combat employer misconduct.
Misconduct down, reporting up
The good news is that the number of employees making whistleblower reports has increased significantly in recent years. While this may not sound like particularly good news, a closer examination reveals that it is indeed a positive trend. The survey indicates that workers are witnessing fewer instances of employer misconduct overall, while those who do witness illegal activity are significantly more likely than in the past to report it.
According to the report, 45 percent of corporate employees surveyed in 2011 said they had witnessed misconduct at work, down from 49 percent in 2009 and 55 percent in 2007. Meanwhile, the number of workers actually reporting misconduct when they witness it has increased to 65 percent, up from just 53 percent in 2005.
Whistleblower retaliation on the rise
Unfortunately, along with these encouraging trends, ERC researchers also discovered another, more sinister development. Employer retaliation against whistleblowers has increased dramatically in recent years, with 22 percent of workers who reported employer misconduct experiencing some form of retaliation in 2011 — an increase of 83 percent since 2007, the survey found. In addition, the number of workers who reported feeling pressure to compromise their ethical standards at work increased five percentage points to 13 percent in 2011.
Legal protection for whistleblower employees
Numerous state and federal laws protect workers from retaliation when they blow the whistle on the employers by reporting illegal activity. Whistleblowers may report a wide range of employee misconduct, such as:
- Workplace safety violations
- Illegal discrimination
- Public health hazards
- Environmental violations
- Tax or financial fraud
- Data tampering
Whistleblowers perform an extremely important function in society by helping to ensure that business is conducted fairly and safely, but the personal and professional risks can be substantial. As indicated by the 2011 ERC report, employer retaliation against whistleblowers is rising sharply, even though this retaliation is often illegal.
Depending on the circumstances, employers may be prohibited from firing, demoting or taking other adverse employment actions against workers to punish them for reporting illegal activity, and they can be liable to workers who experience illegal retaliation.
Workers deliberating over whether to report an employer's misconduct, as well as those who have experienced retaliation for making a whistleblower report, are encouraged to seek legal advice from an experienced employment lawyer who can advise them of their rights and options.