Whistleblower Ombudsman FAQ
Where can I report wrongdoing?
Federal civilian employees have many options to disclose wrongdoing. They can:
- tell a supervisor or someone higher up in management,
- report the issue to their agency's Office of Inspector General (OIG),
- file a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC).
Current and former Federal civilian employees and applicants can confidentially report information to an OIG or OSC about any of the following types of wrongdoing:
- a violation of any law, rule, or regulation;
- a gross waste of funds;
- an abuse of authority; or
- a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
OSC protects Federal civilian employees who make disclosures to OSC or an OIG from retaliation. Members of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps should see the below FAQ: As a member of the PHS Commissioned Corps am I protected from retaliation for whistleblowing?.
Can I keep my identity confidential?
Yes. The Department of Health and Human Services OIG has a hotline that allows employees to make confidential disclosures. Inspectors General are prohibited from disclosing an employee's identity without the employee's consent unless the IG determines that disclosure is unavoidable or is compelled by a court order.
If you file a disclosure with OSC, your identity will not be shared outside OSC without your consent. OSC may disclose your identity only if OSC determines that it is necessary because of an imminent danger to public health or safety or an imminent violation of any criminal law.
Are whistleblowers protected from retaliation?
Yes. The Whistleblower Protection Act prohibits retaliation. This means it is unlawful for agencies to take or threaten to take a personnel action against an employee because he or she disclosed wrongdoing. Personnel actions can include poor performance review, demotion, suspension, termination, or revocation or downgrade of a security clearance.
In addition, the law prohibits retaliation for:
- filing an appeal, complaint, or grievance;
- helping someone else file or testifying on that person's behalf;
- cooperating with or disclosing information to OSC or an Inspector General; or
- refusing to obey an unlawful order.
Employees who disclose information that is prohibited by law or Executive Order from being disclosed are protected from retaliation only if the disclosure is made to an OIG or OSC.
Are disclosures to Congress protected?
Yes. Federal law establishes that a Federal employee has the right to communicate with and provide information to the United States Congress.
What can you do if you believe whistleblower retaliation occurred?
If you believe that an agency has retaliated against you because of your whistleblowing, you can:
- file a complaint with OSC, which may seek corrective action when warranted;
- file a union grievance; or
- if you have been subject to a significant personnel action, you can file an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MPSB) and assert whistleblower retaliation as a defense.
Pursuant to Presidential Policy Directive 19 there are special procedures with respect to retaliation in the form of revocation or downgrade of a civilian employee's security clearance. An employee can report such retaliation through the OIG Hotline.
What relief is available to an employee who has suffered retaliation for whistleblowing?
Many forms of relief are available. They include:
- job restoration
- reversal of suspensions and other adverse actions;
- back pay; and
- reasonable and foreseeable consequential damages, such as medical costs, attorney fees, and compensatory damages. In addition, damages may be awarded for attorney fees and expenses incurred due to retaliation.
Can a manager be held accountable for retaliating against a whistleblower?
Yes. OSC may seek disciplinary action against any employee who commits a prohibited personnel practice. If an agency fails to take disciplinary action, then OSC can bring a disciplinary action case to the MSPB against the employee who committed the prohibited personnel practice. If the MSPB finds that an individual has committed a prohibited personnel practice, it can order disciplinary action, including removal, reduction in grade, debarment from Federal employment for up to 5 years, suspension, reprimand, or a fine of up to $1,000.
As a member of the PHS Commissioned Corps am I protected from retaliation for whistleblowing?
In July 2012, Federal law was amended to protect officers of the PHS Commissioned Corps from retaliatory personnel actions for certain whistleblowing activities. Specifically, the law extended to them protections that are already available to members of the armed services under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act (MWPA, 10 U.S.C. 1034). The MWPA requires a PHS Commissioned Corps member to report allegations of retaliation for whistleblowing to the OIG no more than 60 days after they have learned of the retaliatory personnel action. You can report an allegation of retaliation through the OIG Hotline.
More information about the rights of Commissioned Corps Members can be found in the Commissioned Corps Directive on Protected Communications.
As the employee of a contractor, subcontractor, or grant recipient, am I protected from retaliation for whistleblowing?
Section 828 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 extended whistleblower protections to employees of government contractors, subcontractors, and grant recipients. The law prohibits reprisal against employees of contractors, subcontractors, or grantees for coming forward with information that they reasonably believe is evidence of "gross mismanagement of a federal contract or grant, a gross waste of federal funds, and abuse of authority relating to a federal contract or grant, a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety, or a violation of law, rule, or regulation related to a federal contract (including the competition for or negotiation of a contract) or grant." An employee of a contractor, subcontractor, or grantee who believes that he or she has been subjected to prohibited reprisal may submit a complaint through the OIG Hotline.
Please note that the role of the Whistleblower Ombudsman is limited to educating Department employees about prohibitions on retaliation for whistleblowing, as well as employees' rights and remedies if anyone retaliates against them for making a protected disclosure. This role does not extend to individuals who are not Department employees.
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