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Take steps before blowing the whistle at work

Tribune Content Agency logoTribune Content Agency 10/9/2019 By Kathleen Furore, Tribune Content Agency

Whistleblowing is in the news a lot these days, but it doesn't only affect government officials. If an employee believes a co-worker or supervisor is doing something that is against company policy, what is the first step he or she should take to remedy the situation without putting his or her own job at risk?

When I put this question out there to my universe of experts, I got a lot of responses. The general consensus: While whistleblower protections exists, proceed with caution.

"Virtually every financial regulation, labor and anti-discrimination law provide a clause that prohibits retaliation against an employee for bringing an issue to light," says Laura Handrick, a careers and workplace analyst with FitSmallBusiness.com who has worked in the human resources and business strategy spaces for Fortune 100 companies. "Despite this, however, losing annual income is a considerable disincentive for employees to take on the whistleblower role. So most employees either stay silent or minimize the problem to protect their job and future career opportunities. Beyond this, many realize that if they're retaliated against, they will have to file a lawsuit to recover damages, making whistleblowing all the more hazardous."

That doesn't mean staying mum is the best option. Here are some tips for anyone thinking about blowing the whistle on a co-worker or boss:

Make sure what you want to report is actually fraudulent, illegal or wrong. That advice comes from Miami-based attorney Miguel A. Suro. "For example, someone in the private sector can usually accept gifts from clients, but it can be considered bribery in government," explains Suro, who also suggests consulting an attorney early in the process if you decide to proceed.

Review your company's employee handbook. Take this step "to determine if there is a procedure for the filing of workplace grievances or complaints," Kamran Shahabi, managing partner of Valiant Law in Ontario, California, suggests.

Consider taking your concern to an internal team member. According to Handrick, this is a better step -- at least at first -- than contacting a news outlet or filing a complaint with a labor board. "At some companies, there's an option to share feedback anonymously, while at others, the issue can be reported to the Human Resources team or to an ombudsman," she says. "This tactic ensures that all customer and employee complaints have a voice."

As ethicist Steven Mintz (stevenmintzethics.com), author of "Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior," points out, these kinds of internal sources "have the authority to investigate alleged wrongdoing in an independent manner." It is also a way to protect the whistle-blower "because anonymity can be guaranteed, at least at the early stages of the investigation."

Ultimately, internal sources "can make a determination about whether the complaint should become public because it is credible. At this stage, the whistle-blower should be protected by law," Mintz says.

If you've decided to bring the situation to your employer's attention, Shahabi suggests taking the following steps to make sure you're protected:

File a written workplace complaint. You should do this via email or letter and save a copy of all communication. Also request that the information be kept confidential and private to prevent retaliation from the co-worker and/or supervisor.

Request a follow-up call or meeting. Do this after one or two weeks to determine if the company has started an investigation or taken any steps to remedy the issue. Also document and save your communication in this regard.

"Be aware and cognizant of the treatment you receive after your notice to the employer because you may be retaliated against in various forms, including a change in schedule, unfavorable treatment, unmerited or exaggerated write-ups, and even termination," Shahabi says. "And, if that occurs, you should certainly likewise document the retaliation and lodge a further complaint with the employer and also seek out an attorney for further advice depending on the specific issues faced."

If you aren't confident your employer will listen to your concerns, Handrick says it's best to document the issue in one of a few ways:

*Document in writing what happened and when.

If possible, video, audiotape or photograph the issue.

Identify collaborating individuals who witnessed the problem or could be called upon to testify to the validity of the issue, should your case go to court.

Also make sure you follow the company process and review your employee handbook, Handrick says. "There may be a requirement to report all problems to a designated person. If the employer fires you, he/she may claim it's due to failure to follow company policy, not retaliation."

(Kathleen Furore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has covered personal finance and other business-related topics for a variety of trade and consumer publications. You can email her your career questions at kfurore@yahoo.com.)

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