Protection From Retaliation For Internal Whistleblowers

The term “whistleblowing” is frequently thought to refer to an employee’s reports of an employer’s wrongdoing to company outsiders, such as an enforcement agency of some sort.  But whistleblowing can also occur internally, meaning that the employee’s report is confined to other people within the employer, such as human resources or safety representatives.  We know that employees who blow the whistle externally sometimes have protection from an employer’s retaliatory conduct, but what about employees whose whistling never gets outside the employer?  Do internal whistleblowers ever have protection from retaliation?

The answer is yes, in limited circumstances.  Internal whistleblowing may be implicitly or sometimes even expressly protected by statutes or administrative rules that prohibit retaliation for complaining about or reporting unlawful behavior, even if the statute or administrative rule only explicitly covers complaints to third parties.  In essence, if a statute or administrative rule makes it illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee who complains to an outside party, it’s very possible that an employee’s internal complaints will also be protected from retaliation, even if the statute or administrative rule does not specifically state so.

The theory behind anti-retaliation laws for internal whistleblowing, at least in those areas where an anti-retaliation statute or administrative rule exists, is that employees should feel free to internally address issues with their employers without fear of reprisals.  Plus, it would make little sense to afford employees anti-retaliatory protection for complaints outside the employer but lead them exposed to retaliation for making the same complaints internally.

To date, Iowa’s courts have only recognized internal whistleblowing rights in two circumstances – (1) internal reports of falsified training documents concerning employees who worked with dementia patients and (2) internal complaints of potential safety issues that implicated Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Act.  But there are many other possibilities given the vast array of anti-retaliation statutes and administrative rules on the books.

Internal whistleblower cases require legal analysis of statutes, regulations, and court decisions.  I can help you with any employment law or labor law questions that you might have.  Please feel free to contact me for a free initial consultation about employment law or labor law.

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