Employers do not have the right to punish employees for reporting safety violations or other illegal activity. Employment laws protect whistleblower employees -- or at least they are supposed to -- by making it illegal to retaliate against a whistleblower.
Recently, a California appeals court overturned an employee's wrongful termination suit. The man worked for Countrywide Financial Corp. before it was purchased by Bank of America Corp. When Countrywide was purchased, the man was fired by Bank of America. The man claimed that he was fired because he had previously reported unsafe working conditions -- in other words he was fired in retaliation for his actions. He apparently called state officials after he and several coworkers were poisoned by a chemical leak. Furthermore, the man claims that he refused to lie for the company to investigators.
Following his termination, the man filed a wrongful termination suit and won in 2011 after a jury decided he was illegally fired. That decision was appealed to the California Court of Appeals. In late February, that court reversed the decision of the jury and said the man was not wrongfully terminated.
The court argued that there was not enough evidence that the man's actions with Countrywide had anything to do with Bank of America's decision not to hire him. The court argued that since all of the executives at the man's level were fired by Bank of America it was unlikely that he was fired in retaliation for his whistle blowing.
As this case shows, wrongful termination cases can be complicated. However, employees need to understand that they have legal rights that protect them against illegal termination. With the right help, employees can ensure that they are not punished for reporting illegal behavior.
Source: Los Angeles Times, "$3.8-million jury award to Countrywide whistle-blower overturned," E. Scott Reckard, Feb. 20, 2013