Retaliation and whistleblowing are two concepts that are often related in employment law. Separately or together, they can provide important ways for workers to protect their rights.
Like most states, Georgia follows an at-will approach to employment law. This means, generally, employers can fire employees at any time, for almost any reason, unless the reason for the firing violates the law.
In fact, Georgia is more strict than other states in this respect. Other states allow courts to decide that workers can file a claim against an employer for wrongful discharge if the action violated public policy. In Georgia, courts will allow a wrongful discharge claim only if the the action violated a specific state or federal law.
Some types of jobs have protections of their own. These include certain labor union jobs, academic jobs with tenure and some other positions where the protections are built into the worker’s employment contract.
For most other workers in Georgia, the protections available under state law prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex or disability, as well as retaliation against workers who engage in protected activity.
Protected activities and retaliation
Protected activities include testifying in a court case and reporting unlawful behavior to the appropriate authorities. The state has an interest in encouraging truthful testimony and reporting unlawful behavior, so it offers protections to workers who participate in these activities.
By way of illustration, imagine the following scenario. Belinda works as a sales agent for Charlotte’s company. A customer, Kathy, files a lawsuit against Charlotte’s company and calls Belinda as a witness. Belinda testifies truthfully, which means divulging some information that looks bad for the company. Charlotte gets mad and fires Belinda.
In this case, Belinda engaged in protected activity when she testified. When Charlotte retaliated against her, Charlotte acted unlawfully. Belinda may pursue a claim for wrongful discharge based on retaliation.
Whistleblowing and retaliation
Retaliation claims often come up in the context of whistleblowing. Truthfully reporting unlawful behavior is protected activity. If an employer retaliates against an employee who has reported illegal conduct at work, including unlawful discrimination, sexual harassment or workplace safety violations, the worker should be able to make a wrongful discharge claim.
Imagine Gina works at Jane’s guitar-making shop. Gina complains that some of the woodworking equipment at the shop is unsafe, but Jane refuses to do anything about it. Still concerned, Jane reports the problem to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigates and orders Jane to fix the problem and pay a fine. Jane is angry and fires Gina.
In this case, Jane has retaliated against Gina for protected activity — blowing the whistle about unsafe working conditions. Gina can file a claim for wrongful discharge.
Federal laws can also protect Georgia workers. Federal laws have protections against other types of discrimination not explicitly covered under Georgia law, including discrimination on the basis of race, national origin and religion. There are also federal laws that protect whistleblowers.
Workers who feel they were retaliated against can speak to an experienced employment law attorney about their options.