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5 FAQs on workplace retaliation and whistleblower protections

Most employment in the U.S is at "at will." An employer can generally fire an employee at any time, unless there is a contract that requires the employer to show good cause.

There are, however, important exceptions to this general rule. In those cases, a fired employee may be able to sue the employer for wrongful termination.

In this post, we will use a Q & A format to discuss these exceptions.

What if illegal discrimination led to the firing?

Employers cannot fire someone based on certain illegal reasons, including discrimination based on race, religion, age or gender.

Under federal law, firing on these reasons is illegal and employees have certain protections against wrongful termination.

Do some states go even farther than federal law in providing protection?

Yes.

In California, a state law contains important protections for whistleblowers who report violations of the law by an employer to either internal or external authorities. Employers are not allowed to prohibit such reports.

California law also prohibits an employer or its agents from retaliating or taking punitive action against an employee who refuses to violate legal requirements.

Give an example of how this might play out.

A director-level manager in California wants a female worker fired because the worker is supposedly too unattractive. When the female worker's first-line supervisor refuses to do it, the manger terminates the supervisor too.

This is not allowed under California law. Indeed, California law even has certain protections for job applicants against discrimination based on appearance.

Can whistleblowers who report wrongdoing by their employers earn financial awards?

Yes, in certain cases. The Internal Revenue Service has a whistleblower program to provide financial incentives for the disclosure of tax evasion. The Securities and Exchange Commission has a similar program for reporting fraud and other illegal conduct.

Can an employee who seeks whistleblower protection after making an internal report within his or her company still be fired?

That question will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in an upcoming case out of San Francisco. The case involves an employee of a trust company who was fired after reporting fraud to his company's internal authorities concerning a manager who concealed certain expenses.

The company is arguing that whistleblower protections in the federal Dodd Frank Act do not apply because the employee did not report the conduct fraudulent conduct to the SEC.

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