“Blow the Whistle, Ref!” Limited Safeguards Under the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act

Last Thursday, my twin sons and their teammates finished their freshmen football season at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School with a big win against a local competitor. Overhearing some disgruntled parents from the other team, I was reminded how rarely we as fans think the officials call a fair game against our program. If the flag goes against our team, we cry foul.

The same is often true in the workplace. If we don’t like a manager or supervisor’s decision, it is easy to question the motivation. In some circumstances, Michigan law provides protection against retaliatory treatment. But that protection generally extends only to certain conduct. For example, under state and federal civil rights legislation, employers can’t retaliate against employees for exercising or enforcing their statutory rights (e.g., the right to exercise Family Medical Leave or to be free of workplace discrimination).
Like many other states, Michigan does have a statute that specifically protects “Whistleblowers” – employees who have reported “a violation or suspected violation of federal, state or local laws, rules or regulations to a public body.” So if the company bookkeeper gets fired right after he tips off the IRS about the boss’ failure to withhold payroll taxes, he probably has a Whistleblower claim. But, to some people’s surprise, the Whistleblower statute doesn’t give workers license to call out every perceived wrong in the workplace.
The Whistleblowers’ Protection Act offers shelter for employees reporting illegal activity to a government body. It doesn’t protect workers who speak out about office politics, or who shine light on unsavory (but not illegal) company policy or practice.
Employers and employees alike need to navigate an increasingly complex body of local, state and federal law that impacts the employment relationship. And while much of that law seeks to root out discriminatory or retaliatory conduct by employers, it remains true that not every perceived wrong has a legal remedy. Employees would be wise to check the rulebook before blowing the whistle.