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Why whistleblower protections can backfire

To a certain generation, Bob Woodward stands out as a respectable whistleblower that brought the Watergate scandal into public view. More recently, Edward Snowden leaked classified information about the NSA to reveal what he considered to be abuses of power.

The fact is, however, that often whistleblowers are not considered heroes and are afraid to speak up because of possible reprisals in the workplace. If you see something wrong, illegal or unethical at work, can you report it without fear of retaliation?

Protection for whistleblowers

Many companies have a whistleblower protection policy, meaning that an employee that reports corruption, fraud, embezzlement, health and safety code violations, financial mismanagement, and other workplace violations is protected from retaliation by the company. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 is a federal law that protects federal employees that report misconduct. Florida has its own Whistleblower act that protects employees from retaliation, including verbal threats, harassment, demotion, and termination.

In spite of this, some employees are hesitant to speak up when they see such activity. Why?

The psychology behind whistleblower policy failures

Anti-retaliation policies are sometimes very explicit, describing quite vividly different forms of reprisal that are not allowed. This in itself may actually discourage an employee from reporting wrong or illegal conduct. Simply imagining the specific scenarios of retaliation delineated within the policy can make the would-be whistleblower perceive a higher risk if he or she says something.

In psychology, this is known as "vividness congruency," where the vivid elements of the message seem consistent with the message itself. In other words, although the employee knows that retaliation is not allowed, the vivid descriptions of these prohibited forms of reprisal make them seem more real.

Don't be afraid to speak up - the law is on your side

You should not be afraid to speak up if you see some form of misconduct or illegal activity at work. A company that retaliates against a whistleblower faces prosecution, which could include punitive damages and possible criminal charges. Federal and state laws protect employees who speak up, and many companies have their own protection policies in addition to these.

If you are concerned about retaliation for speaking up about fraudulent or illegal activity at work, contact an attorney that is experienced in employment matters and defending employee rights.

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