In response to the Blagojevich scandal, over the past few years the Illinois General Assembly has broadened the protections of the Whistleblower Act (740 ILCS 174/1, et seq.). Illinois now has some of the strongest protections for whistleblower in the country. Therefore, employers, particularly those who work in government, should have a basic understanding of the Act, and implement policies that will ensure that they do not violate it.
The Whistleblower Act is designed to protect employees who report an employer’s violation of the law. Both public and private sector employees are covered by the Act, and its protections have been interpreted broadly by the courts. If an employee believes that his employer is engaging in illegal activity, he can report it to the Attorney General, Secretary of State, Comptroller, Treasurer, or any state agency.
If an employer retaliates against an employee for reporting the employer’s illegal conduct or refusing to engage in illegal conduct, the employee may bring a lawsuit against the employer for this retaliation. If the employee is successful, he may recover back pay he would be owed after his firing, attorneys’ fees, compensation for damages suffered due to the retaliatory action, and reinstatement to his former position.
The Whistleblower Act can be a potential landmine for the unwary employer. The Act protects employees, at least initially, even if they file a report in a bad faith attempt to harass their employers. Therefore, employers must take pains to ensure that they do not appear to retaliate against an employee who makes a report under the Act. Employers should make it clear that employees will not be retaliated against for making complaints under the Act. In fact, employers should provide employees with information about where to report illegal conduct.
Employers should also keep detailed records to refute claims of illegal activity. An employer may be able to recover damages if he can prove that an employee has filed false reports with a bad faith intent to harass.
Ultimately, an employer can prevent expensive litigation by consulting with attorneys before engaging in conduct that may potentially violate the Act.