In the 1970s, a particular brand of cigarettes geared towards women used the tag line “you’ve have come a long way baby,” and today, the same could be said for the term “whistleblower.”
In the early to mid-20th century, individuals who reported illegal activity were often referred to in pejorative terms such as “rats” and “snitches.”
But in 1970, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who would later gain greater fame as the independent party candidate who threw the 2000 presidential election into turmoil, coined the term “whistleblower,” and since that time, it has since evolved into a positive term—someone of high morals and integrity who is willing to sacrifice to report illegal activity.
Edward Snowden is the latest poster child for the term. While some have referred to him as a traitor, the fact remains that he has given up his job, residency, and freedom to stand for a certain principle.
Politics aside, what if an employee sees or hears of something that he or she believes violates certain laws? How many federal laws provide protection for whistle-blowing activities? Well, there are, depending on how you count them, at least 30 federal whistleblower statutes.
That total does not include their close cousins, anti-retaliation provisions, such as those found in civil rights laws like Title VII (if those are included, the total is 41).
Nor does it include the plethora of whistleblower and anti-retaliation statutes enacted by state legislatures or their courts.
Components of whistleblowing statutes
Whistleblower statutes generally consist of two main components:
1. a defined protected activity, in this case, the whistleblowing action, and
2. the protections that cover employees who engage in such conduct.
At a minimum, the statute will typically make it illegal to terminate a whistleblower. However, most of these statutes also make it illegal to discriminate against a whistleblower in other ways, such a compensation and other terms and conditions of employment.
Because there are so many whistleblower statutes, and because they can vary in their particular requirements, ensuring compliance can be difficult, and often must be tailored to the particular industry of the employer.
For example, statutes like the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act, or the FBI Employee whistleblower protections found in 5 U.S.C. § 2303, obviously have very specific and narrow applications, the one being focused on a single industry, and the other on a single employer.
Others, such as Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley, and the Affordable Care Act, are broadly applicable to much of the private sector. One difficulty is that many of these statutes (including Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act) are of recent vintage, and their precise meaning is therefore still unclear.
Top 30 whistleblowing statutes
Below is a list of the top 30 federal whistleblowing statues. Some of these only apply to federal employees, contractors, or subcontractors, but most apply to private employers.
From environmental protections, food, mine and workplace safety, transportation and infrastructure, to financial institution oversight, these laws cover the spectrum of subject areas; thereby providing protection to millions of workers while at the same time providing tremendous pitfalls to their employers.
Employers would be wise to become familiar with those laws that apply to their particular industry and provide the necessary training to their managers and supervisors so as to avoid a legal, or worse, a public relations nightmare.