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Be alert for health, safety whistle-blowing

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s a warning for federal government employers: Just about any internal complaint about agency wrongdoing may be protected activity under the Whistleblower Pro­­tec­­tion Act (WPA).

Something as simple as complain­­ing about sexist statements or alcohol abuse within an agency may become the basis for a whistle-blowing lawsuit. That’s because the WPA defines whistle-blowing as “any disclosure where the employee reasonably be­­lieves that the information evidences: (i) a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or (ii) gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”

Recent case: Leslie managed a federal wildlife park. She took offense after her supervisor, during an evaluation, suggested that she should act in a more “feminine” way when handling her subordinates.

She complained in writing about the review and added that she believed that management was overlooking alcohol abuse among park employees. She said their ­conduct posed a risk to themselves and co-workers. She pointed to a recent staff suicide as evidence.

After complaining, she was reassigned to another position. She decided to retire rather than accept the reassignment.

Then she sued, alleging retaliation for whistle-blowing.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said she had a WPA case based on her internal complaints about sexism and alcohol abuse. To constitute protected disclosure, the internal complaint doesn’t have to point to a particular legal violation, but can address any hazard that might endanger staff or others. (Kerr v. Jewell, No. 12-35084, 9th Cir., 2013)

Final note: Of course, it goes without saying that supervisors should never suggest an employee should act more “feminine” or “masculine.” Stereotyping is never a good management practice. Focus on specific job tasks that should be improved, not the person’s characteristics.

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