We Protect Workers

What happens if managers tell workers to break the law?

Employees in California rely on their employers to train them. They probably don’t know all of the laws that may apply to their industry or even all of their rights as workers. An employee might have unknowingly broken the law previously under the direct instruction of a supervisor or manager.

After they learn about the regulations that apply in their industry, they might refuse certain job tasks because they violate state or federal statutes. A worker refusing to perform certain tasks out of concern about the law might worry that they could face punishment at work.

How can a worker protect against retaliation if a supervisor or manager instructs them to violate the law?

Document the request

Proving that a supervisor asked someone to break the law is important for their future protection. The more details someone has about illegal requests from employers, the easier it may be to fight back against retaliation later. Putting together detailed notes that discuss any prior illegal activity at work and requests that a worker subsequently refused can help them prove that they asserted themselves in a lawful manner. Ideally, preserving requests in writing, if possible, can create a valuable paper trail to validate a worker’s concerns.

Address the issue internally

The worker who refuses to follow a manager’s instructions could face write-ups or worse as punishment for their insubordination. Therefore, if a worker declines to perform a job task because it violates the law, they likely need to speak with someone else within the company about that decision. Reporting to the next level of management or the human resources team about one’s concerns could prompt an internal review. Companies may take action if they discover that someone has violated the law and required that others also break the law on behalf of the company. Workers need to prepare for the possibility that the company might not respond appropriately to their complaints.

Be ready to take additional action

Proper documentation of both illegal work requests and communication with the company about the issue can protect a worker from retaliation. Unfortunately, some employers inappropriately and illegally punish those who refuse to break the law and who draw attention to improper business practices.

Retaliatory firings (and other kinds of adverse action) of whistleblowers are common even though both federal rules and California state laws clearly protect their rights. Ultimately, talking with a lawyer about potentially illegal workplace activity and the risk of whistleblower retaliation could help workers mitigate some of their risks.