Whistleblowers are underappreciated heroes, and calling out wrongdoing in the federal workplace is a noble action.
However, it is not something you should do lightly. Before you do anything, you need to know what a whistleblower is.
On top of that, it is vital that you understand your rights as a whistleblower before you act.
So if you are considering reporting wrongdoing, read this whistleblower guide carefully.
We will discuss the definition of a whistleblower and the protections that a whistleblower action provides.
You should also contact one of our attorneys at the Federal Employment Law Firm of Aaron D. Wersing, PLLC for specific legal advice regarding your situation.
What Whistleblowers Should Know First: The Definition of a Whistleblower
The most important thing you need to know is what makes you a whistleblower according to the law. In other words, to become a whistleblower, what actions do you need to take?
In the federal workplace, you need to make a “protected disclosure” to qualify for whistleblower protections.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) defines a “protected disclosure” as “any disclosure of information that an employee, former employee, or applicant for employment” reasonably believes shows one or more of the following:
- Violation of any law, rule, or regulation,
- Gross waste of funds,
- Substantial and specific danger to public health and safety,
- Gross mismanagement, or
- Abuse of authority.
This means that complaining about your boss’s curt comment or your coworker’s annoying personal habits will probably not rise to the level of “protected disclosure.”
However, these terms use broad wording intentionally to encompass a wide variety of other inappropriate behaviors.
When crafting these laws, Congress sought to give federal employees the benefit of the doubt in a whistleblower action.
One of the ways they accomplished this goal was by requiring that whistleblowers only “reasonably believe” the information they passed along constituted evidence of misconduct.
Put another way, if you disclose alleged misconduct in whistleblower action that turns out not to be prohibited behavior upon further investigation, you still receive whistleblower protection as long you reasonably believed the behavior was inappropriate.
Federal law protects whistleblowers from any and all retaliatory “personnel actions.” But what is a personnel action?
Federal law defines that phrase to include the following:
- A position appointment,
- A promotion,
- A detail, transfer, or reassignment,
- A restoration,
- A performance evaluation,
- A change in pay,
- A change in benefits, and
- An award.
Orders to undergo psychiatric testing or examination and “any other significant change in duties, responsibilities, or working conditions” are also personnel actions.
That means that if your employer demotes you, changes your duties, rescinds an award, or gives you a bad performance review because of your disclosure, they have broken the law.
How Should I Disclose Wrongdoing?
The law does not require whistleblowers to make a protected disclosure to a certain person. On the contrary, whistleblowers have wide latitude on how to make a protected disclosure.
For example, they can disclose wrongdoing to their first-line supervisor or second-line supervisor.
They can also disclose wrongdoing to their agency’s Inspector General, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), or even Congress itself.
You will receive whistleblower protections as long as you reasonably believe that your whistleblower action reveals misconduct.
Can I Choose to Remain Anonymous?
It depends. When you make a protected disclosure to the OSC, you can choose to remain anonymous.
Furthermore, most agencies’ Inspector General offices have anonymous hotlines that you can use to make a protected disclosure.
But the OSC can publicly reveal your identity if they determine it necessary because of imminent danger to public health or safety.
Further, if you want to claim whistleblower retaliation, you must generally show that your whistleblowing contributed to the retaliatory action.
This may be harder to show if you remain anonymous.
Can Probationary Employees Receive Whistleblower Protections?
Yes. Federal employees are considered “probationary employees” for their first year of federal service.
As probationers, they enjoy far fewer rights than non-probationary employees.
For example, probationary employees cannot appeal adverse actions, including terminations, to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).
However, probationary employees can appeal alleged acts of retaliation for whistleblowing to the MSPB.
Consult a Lawyer Before You Become a Whistleblower
Even though most people applaud whistleblowers, becoming one can change your career forever.
Unfortunately, whistleblower retaliation is an all too common sight in the federal workplace.
So before you make a protected disclosure, it’s best to reach out for legal advice from an experienced federal employment attorney.
Here at the Federal Employment Law Office of Aaron D. Wersing, our talented legal team can help you file a complaint with the OSC or your employer.
We can also verify that your complaint meets the standard of a “protected disclosure” so that you can qualify as a whistleblower.
With our decades of experience protecting federal employees, we know what retaliation looks like and how to fight it.
So we are prepared to defend you aggressively against retaliation by your employer and protect your rights. Don’t risk your federal career by going it alone.