The word ‘whistleblower’ conjures up images of Enron or other head-line grabbing stories where an employee is awarded millions of dollars for reporting some egregious action by their employer, who callously ignores the reports of wrongdoing in the search for profits.
Those cases do exist, of course, and serve as a warning to everyone that flagrantly ignoring the rules can lead to corporate destruction, public relations meltdowns, and the demise of employee loyalty and morale, in addition to atrocious legal fees, government fines, and possible exclusion from government contracts and other arrangements.
But you aren’t Enron or Arthur Anderson. You work at a hospital or a physician practice, and those sorts of things are unlikely to affect your company, an organization that just works to take care of patients, right? Not so fast.
A ‘whistleblower’ is a person who reports an organization or individual for breaking the laws to the government. There are many laws that protect whistleblowers. The one that most healthcare people are familiar with is the False Claims Act, which has ‘qui tam’ provisions allowing for a whistleblower to recover a portion of any government settlement.
There are many other laws, however, that allow for whistleblowers. A whistleblower may call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and report that you discriminated against them based on their age or disability. Not likely? What if you have a dispute with them after they take a medical leave and then don’t want or can’t come back, and you need to fill their job? Some of those laws can be complex and you may unwittingly run afoul.
Another common scenario is the constant complainer. You know that person who is always reporting some problem or complaining about a coworker’s behavior? It is not unusual to disregard such a person after many complaints and problems that are maybe impossible to validate or seem implausible on their face. But then that individual raises a legitimate issue, and due to how they communicate or perhaps their history of being difficult and combative, you don’t take them seriously. Or maybe you make a note of it and it gets lost in the daily shuffle.
So what then? While you may forget about it or push it to the back, they are stewing on it, or maybe even printing emails and reports, sending things home, gathering confirmation of the violation. They research the cases and law, and eventually find an attorney who deals in those types of issues. They might come and ask you about it again, or report it to someone else, or they might not. The next thing you know, however, you get a notice or a subpoena and the issue becomes very real very fast.
The lesson here is simple; pay attention to all complaints in your practice or organization, even if the person isn’t credible generally. It might be some “H.R.” issue, or quality, or billing… it may not even be an issue that is on your radar as a risk area. But it’s worth the investment of your time to make sure. And it really isn’t sufficient just to ask their manager, who may tell you it’s nothing. If you are ultimately accountable, think about how this can impact your organization, your patients or clients, and your career if it turns out to be significant.