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Taking the risk of following your conscience

In New York and across the country, almost half of workers surveyed say they are aware of illegal or unethical practices in the workplace. You may be part of that group. In addition, you may belong to the 46 percent who keep their mouths shut because you are afraid someone at work will retaliate against you. You may fear for your job or even your personal safety if you question or report wrongdoing.

Despite the fact that it is against the law for companies to retaliate or encourage retaliation against whistleblowers, almost one quarter of those who report illegal activity - such as fraud, kickbacks or false billing - experience some form of retaliation.

Whistleblowers benefit companies

Fraud can cost a company millions of dollars in profits, and whistleblowers often reveal what they know because they care for the well-being of the company. Methods of detecting fraud and other illegal activity are sophisticated, and developing technology means those methods can only improve. Nevertheless, studies show that whistleblowers instigate over 40 percent of investigations into workplace fraud.

Instead of thanking you, your company may fire you, demote you or transfer you to a department or region that eliminates your chances of advancement. In some cases, whistleblowers have been physically injured in retaliation for reporting illegal workplace activity. Your employer may try to justify these retaliatory acts by referring to the confidentiality agreement you signed when you were hired.

A positive environment for whistleblowers

If employees are encouraged to stand up for ethical business practices, such retaliation may decrease. The company you work for may develop a written policy protecting whistleblowers from harm and encouraging above-board behavior from all employees that will make whistleblowing unnecessary. Just as important would be training to implement those policies and to educate employees about the high standards necessary to run an ethical business.

In case whistleblowing is necessary, employee advocates recommend that your employer establish a safe and, perhaps, anonymous system for reporting. The company you work for should also have guidelines in place for handling regular corrective measures - such as a consistent, incremental disciplinary system - so that employees do not misinterpret correction for retaliation. If these do not exist, you may want to suggest them for the future.

Taking a bold step

Meanwhile, you should be aware of the ways in which the law protects you when you decide to take the courageous step and inform authorities of illegal practices in your place of business. In fact, you may also be eligible for certain rewards the government provides to whistleblowers in some circumstances.

You may be concerned about the possibility that your employer or co-workers will retaliate against you because of your whistleblowing. Or you may wonder if you are eligible for whistleblowing awards. If you have questions or concerns, you may wish to seek legal counsel. Having strong advice and knowledgeable support will ensure that your rights are protected.

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