How to Blow the Whistle
Follow these five steps if you take on wrongdoers.
Decide carefully. Weigh whether the wrongdoing is substantial enough to warrant the risks of reprisal and whether you have sufficient proof. With a lawyer, figure out which one (or more) of the myriad whistleblower laws applies in your case, and carefully choose where, or to whom, you disclose what you know. Make sure you have the financial and emotional stamina, and your family’s support, for a long fight.
But decide quickly. Each law has its own deadline. Bounty programs favor the whistleblower who files a claim first. The False Claims Act, which allows citizens to fight fraud against the government, generally gives you six years to file a suit from the time the false claim was made. In retaliation cases, environmental and safety laws require a filing within 30 days of the adverse action; corporate whistleblower law Sarbanes-Oxley gives you 180 days. State laws have their own deadlines.
Aim well when you throw the book at ’em. Bundle as many allegations under as many laws as you can, says Stephen Kohn, author of The Whistleblower’s Handbook. Check state laws, too. Did you find asbestos at work and get fired for reporting it? File an unsafe work environment claim with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and you might get reinstated with back pay. Is the asbestos endangering the public? Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, you may have the right to reinstatement, back pay, compensatory damages and lawyers’ fees. Do you work for a public company that didn’t disclose the asbestos as a shareholder liability? File a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission for a potential reward and double back pay, or file suit under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which gives you the right to a jury trial. Has the company applied for a government contract and signed a disclosure that it was asbestos-free? That gets you to the False Claims Act—double back pay, lawyers’ fees, plus a reward that can reach millions of dollars.
Gather ye evidence while ye may. Documentation is crucial, but gathering it is problematic. You’ll need tangible evidence—copies of e-mails, spreadsheets and other documents—before you blow the whistle and information disappears. But don’t break the law (by breaking into a supervisor’s office, for example).
Read up on the process. Check out The Whistleblower’s Handbook, by Stephen Kohn (Amazon, $12), and The Corporate Whistleblower’s Survival Guide, by Tom Devine and Tarek Maassarani (Amazon, $8).