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Beating the bully: Can you be fired for defending someone?

Sarah was tired of seeing it happening. Her office was mostly men, and for the few women who worked there, it felt like something between an old boy's club and a fraternity. When Sarah's co-worker, Shelby, was pregnant, the men constantly commented on her burgeoning belly. They touched her stomach without permission and made crude jokes about how she had ended up "in the family way."

Shelby tolerated it, but when she returned from maternity leave, the behavior escalated from irritating to intolerable. The boss would not allow Shelby to take extra time for pumping breast milk and insisted that she do it on her breaks or lunch hour.

When Shelby's baby was briefly hospitalized for an infection, the boss sent her texts and told her to return to work immediately, or risk losing her job. Sarah knew this kind of treatment was illegal. When she contacted HR, she was informed that her job was in jeopardy if she continued to pursue the matter. Can the company let Sarah go for defending Shelby's rights?

Whistleblower protection

Sarah not only has the right to alert HR and to voice her concerns, arguably, she has a responsibility. Often, younger employees are not aware of their legal protections. Employees like Sarah help newer co-workers navigate their jobs. But is Sarah truly in jeopardy of termination if she continues?

State law indicates that whistleblower protection covers "reporting [a] suspected violation internally (for instance to a supervisor within the organization)." The behavior and antics mentioned above include sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination and violation of the Family Medical Leave Act. This conduct is not just insidious, it is illegal and Shelby's protections under the law are being violated routinely. 

The California Whistleblower Protection Act was codified so that , even if an individual such as Shelby chooses not to file a complaint or is unaware of her legal rights, another employee may do so on her behalf without fear of retaliatory dismissal. After all, an abusive and hostile environment affects all employees. Not just those directly targeted.

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