Minnesota employees are generally protected from workplace retaliation if they report illegal behavior pursuant to workplace policies. The illegal behavior at issue may be unlawful discrimination or harassment based on a protected class such as age, sex, race, or disability, or a violation of some other state or federal law.
But it’s not always clear whether illegal behavior actually occurred. Is a passing, suggestive comment illegal? What about a perceived pay disparity in the workplace? If an employee reports what they view to be illegal behavior, but they turn out to be incorrect, are they still protected from retaliation?
The Scope of Retaliation Protections under the Minnesota Whistleblower Act
The answer to this question depends on the circumstances. The Minnesota Whistleblower Act protects employees from retaliation if they report illegal conduct in areas not involving harassment and discrimination (e.g., health and safety standards, financial fraud). Under this law, employees are protected so long as the facts that they report constitute illegal conduct and they had a good faith belief that the underlying facts did occur. So, if an employee were to report events that would constitute financial fraud but these events actually did not occur, the employee would be protected from retaliation so long as he or she believed in good faith that the events did occur. On the other hand, if an employee accurately reports events that are not illegal (for example, nepotism in the workplace), the employee would not be protected even if he or she believed in good faith that the conduct was illegal. In other words, you have to be right about the law, but you don’t necessarily have to be right about the facts.
Right to Protection from Retaliation under the Minnesota Human Rights Act
In the context of discrimination and harassment, the law is likely more favorable to employees. These types of claims are governed by the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which broadly prohibits discrimination and harassment based on sex, age, disability, race, and other protected characteristics. In these types of cases, an employee reporting these types of claims is more likely protected from retaliation so long as they have a good faith, reasonable belief that the conduct was illegal. The area of discrimination and harassment is more nuanced, and in many situations, it would be impossible for an employee to know with certainty whether particular conduct rises to the level of harassment or discrimination. For that reason, courts are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to employees and protect them from retaliation so long as the employee had a good faith belief that what happened was discrimination or harassment, even if they end up being wrong. For example, if an employee were to report a passing, suggestive comment, he or she potentially could still be protected from retaliation even if that comment would not be considered severe or pervasive enough to actually constitute sexual harassment.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are observing illegal behavior in the workplace, do not hesitate to call our experienced Twin Cities-based employment attorneys. We will be able to guide you every step of the way to give you the best chance to make sure your complaints are heard and that your job is secure. And if an employer retaliates still decides to retaliate against you, we will hold them accountable.