Public Interests and Protection for Employee Whistleblowers

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This year more than ever before, we are seeing a growing alignment between concerns that employees express in the workplace, and those that are of concern to the general public. Many times, we see these employee whistleblowers terminated and/or retaliated against for speaking up about their concerns—the most common of these concerns being health and safety issues.

We see this in employment litigation all the time: An employee complains to his/her employer that the company is engaging in unlawful or unsafe conduct, and they are fired shortly thereafter for no real reason or a false reason. It’s unfortunate that instead of listening to employees to fix the issues and create a better, safer working environment, employers will choose to take the approach of silencing the employee by terminating their employment.

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Finding a Voice

Still, the employee regains their voice when they file a lawsuit—not only because they are standing up for themselves because of what they went through with their employer for doing the right thing, but also because when the lawsuit is filed in court, the case is accessible to the public and inherently creates greater awareness of the issues presented in the case. Litigation sparks the public’s desire for more information about the case; media and news outlets keep a close eye on lawsuits that are filed against companies that are known to conduct themselves in a negative manner that is of public concern; and overall, it goes a long way in preventing unlawful and unsafe conduct that companies and employers engage in. The greater the awareness of these issues, the better.

Our court system is of utmost value when it comes to disseminating information to the public, who have a right to know about these issues which sometimes directly affects them. However, because public issues and employees’ complaints in the workplace are so intertwined now, there is a greater desire for information by the public and media. The problem is that sharing more information outside the context of litigation can sometimes prejudice and compromise the litigation process—especially from a lawyer’s standpoint.

What creates an even greater problem is that these employees, and former employees, frequently have signed arbitration agreements that bury the complaints in a private forum where the public has zero access to the case. The companies are then able to continue their unethical, illegal practices while keeping those who know the truth quiet.

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The dilemma here for us as attorneys, is that we want our clients to spread the unique knowledge and insight they have to help prevent safety issues or injuries from occurring. At the same time, we do not want to do anything to compromise the case, and that often means facilitating all communications to and from our client.

The Case of the Bird

A prime example of all of this is with the recent emergence of the Bird electric scooters and the growing volume of articles and news segments we are seeing about people being killed or seriously hurt while riding the scooters. To put this in the employment context, an ex-employee of Bird, who worked as a field operations associate, claimed that the electric-scooter company told him to ignore issues such as loose handlebars or missing screws, and leave scooters with these problems on the streets for public use, even if it meant compromising the safety of the riders or pedestrians.

Bird’s ex-employee was fired for raising these concerns to the company and for expressing his concerns that the scooter company’s conduct was killing people. Being knowledgeable in the industry, the former Bird employee received a job offer from another scooter company not long after his wrongful termination from Bird. But after a news article aired reflecting the ex-Bird employee speaking out about his safety concerns about Bird, the scooter company rescinded their offer and advised him that by speaking out he had ruined his career.

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It is threats and actions like this that prevent people from coming forward. Not only are they concerned about their job safety if concerns need to be raised but can also face long-term repercussions and retaliation for doing so both within their company and their entire industry.

There needs to be more accountability across the public and private sectors to create work environments where employees feel they can properly conduct their jobs, while keeping the public safe. Carney Shegerian

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