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How to Handle Illegal or Unethical Activity at Work

Most of us hope that coming to work won’t mean courting controversy or becoming involved with illegal activity. During the course of normal business, however, employees might be asked to engage in or keep quiet about certain incidents or business practices that are unethical or even unlawful.

Employers, supervisors, or other coworkers may even try to maintain secrecy by demanding, threatening, bartering, bribing, or pleading for your discretion and silence.

Illegal or unethical employment law issues you can face at work can range in severity and include the following:

  • Your manager tells you not to account for your subordinates’ overtime pay.
  • A coworker asks you to “forget” you saw an email that had racist comments about another coworker.
  • Your supervisor asks you not to report a workplace injury or their request that you not report it.
  • A coworker asks you to rate the attractiveness of other coworkers.
  • Your boss tells you that you “didn’t see” an illegal activity you just witnessed.

Unfortunately, these examples can happen at any company and they’re only just a handful of many ways you can be confronted with illegal activity at work. When someone has involved you in illegal activity by asking you to participate or keep your knowledge of them secret, what should you do?

Don’t Participate or Comply

It can be hard to defy authority at work or refuse to help someone you may actually like, but refrain from becoming directly involved in illegal activity or promising to keep it a secret. Doing either can lead to you being held accountable for the illegal or unethical activity.

What you can do instead is promise nothing and perform your normal lawful duties. If you feel compelled to respond, inform your coworker or supervisor of your intent to report them. If doing that would make you feel unsafe, you can change the subject or offer a non-answer to placate them while you seek help.

Document Everything

Your immediate reaction might be to report what just happened to a supervisor or human resources, and that’s not an incorrect reaction. However, taking a few seconds to at least write down something you heard or saw in as much detail as possible immediately before going to someone can help you tell your story. Later on, such contemporaneous records can even be used as evidence in a lawsuit.

Other ways you can document what happened include archiving emails, text messages, phone logs, and anything else, but be wary of recording audio, video, or photos. Doing so without the consent of the other party could result in inadmissible evidence (should a lawsuit occur). However, Indiana is a one-party consent law state, meaning that you can record phone calls or in-person conversations – as long as you are participating in them – without being held criminally liable for doing so.

Report What You Experienced

Even if you feel uncomfortable about reporting illegal activity at work, you should feel protected by the law for doing so. Retaliatory actions – including termination, demotion, or withholding pay – are illegal and can open your employer up to further legal action. If you fear being subjected to harassment at work for reporting, that is also illegal. Just as with the inciting incident, create contemporaneous documentation if you encounter or are threatened with retaliation or harassment for reporting.

If you witnessed or were told about a criminal activity such as a fraud, sexual assault, child abuse, or another more severe incident, or were told about it, report it to law enforcement. Not only is this probably the most ethical course of action, but failing to do so but having knowledge of what happened, or was going to happen, could open you up to criminal accusations of aiding and abetting or participating in a conspiracy.

Speak with an Attorney

When something illegal is going on at work, it can’t hurt to speak with an employment law attorney. Why? Because even a free consultation can help you understand that your rights were violated and that someone can help you hold responsible parties accountable. You may even recover damages as fair and just compensation in a settlement or jury verdict.

At Hoosier Law Firm, PLLC, our attorneys represent workers and employees in all industries with employment law claims. Unlike some law firms, we don’t serve both sides – we only work with clients who experience mistreatment at work, such as being asked to become involved in illegal activity or keep it a secret. We also help these clients when they experienced wrongful termination or other forms of retaliation for whistleblowing such activity.

When you need an attorney who can help, reach out to Hoosier Law Firm, PLLC for help by contacting us online or calling.