A whistleblower is a person who alleges misconduct of a company. The biggest question when dealing with a whistleblower is the issue of reprisal. The misconduct reported or alleged can be classified in many ways. For example, the alleged violation can be of a law, of a rule, of a regulation, or it can be a direct threat to the public such as through fraud, health and safety violations, and corruption.
One of the most famous whistleblowers is Jeffrey Wigand. Wigand was responsible for exposing the Big Tobacco scandal. He revealed that executives of the companies knew that cigarettes were addictive and approved the addition of carcinogenic ingredients to the cigarettes. This episode was the basis for the 1999 movie The Insider.
The term whistleblower comes from England. The English bobbies, or police, would blow their whistles when they noticed that a crime was happening. The whistle would alert other law enforcement officers and the general public to the danger and the crime.
The majority of whistleblowers are internal whistleblowers. This means they report the misconduct that has happened to a fellow employee or superior within the company. External whistleblowers report misconduct or rule breaking to outside persons or entities. In these cases, depending on the severity and nature of the information, the whistleblower may report the misconduct to a lawyer, the media, law enforcement, watchdog agencies, or some other local, state, or federal agency.
In the majority of federal whistleblower statutes, the employee must have reason to believe that the employer has violated some law, rule, or regulation; the whistleblower must testify or commence a legal proceeding on the legally protected matter; or refuse to violate the law. If disclosure is specifically prohibited by a law or executive order, disclosure may be considered treason.
Legal protections for whistleblowers very according to the subject matter of the violation and sometimes by the state in which the case arises. When the Senate passed the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the committee found that whistleblower protections were dependent on the patchwork and vagaries of varying state statute. There are, nonetheless, a number of federal and state laws protect employees who call attention to violations.
The patchwork collection of whistleblower laws means that the victim of retaliation needs to be alert to the laws at issue to determine the deadlines and means for making proper complaints. Some deadlines are as short as 10 days while others are 6 months. The laws vary depending on what type of complaint is made and who the employer is.