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In-house whistle-blowers win protection

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in Firing,Human Resources

Truck driving instructor Bud Barela tried to help his students "do the math" to figure out how they could earn pay and time off the company promised. But the numbers didn't add up. In fact, Barela discovered it would be impossible to earn the promised pay without violating federal regulations on speeding and driving time.

Barela raised his students' concerns at a company "safety summit." He was told not to answer such questions from students. Three weeks later he was fired.

Barela sued for wrongful termination. The court dismissed his suit, but the 10th Circuit reinstated it. The reason: Although Barela was an at-will employee, Utah law includes a "public policy" exception. That law prevents employers from retaliating against workers who blow the whistle on violations of public safety.

Key point: In the past, whistle-blowers could earn job protection only by alerting government officials. But this case makes clear that internal reporting is enough to win protection. And Barela satisfied that standard.

Whistle-blowers, however, still earn protection only if they complain about an employer's violation of public interest, such as safety or health issues. Complaints about mere private company violations won't overcome the at-will doctrine. (Barela v. C.R. England & Sons Inc., No. 98-4090, 10th Cir., 1999)

Advice: Don't fire or take any adverse job action against employees who complain that your company is violating public safety or health. These workers are now automatically protected once they raise the issue with you, not just with the government.

Expect to hear more about this. Public policy exceptions are mushrooming. And these are hard cases for employers because they typically involve an employee taking action that's diametrically opposed to your financial interests. For example, a nurse recently was allowed to sue after she was fired for suggesting that a nursing home patient switch doctors.

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