For employers, dealing with company secrets going public or getting sold to competitors can be real nightmare.
Apart from the obvious risks of financial losses associated with the loss of company information, the potential for public relations fallout is real, and can hit from a few different angles. To protect against this, employers need to have policies aimed at preventing the loss of private company information, and also need to make sure that those policies aren't enforced against legitimate whistleblowers, or other employees who may actually be engaging in legally protected activity.
Leaking Versus Reporting
When it comes right down to it, when employees make reports to government agencies for the purpose of legal compliance, safety, or law enforcement, they may very well be engaging in protected activity, even if they're revealing private company information. That means that taking any actions against the employee for doing so could expose the company to a retaliation lawsuit.
However, if those same reports were leaked to the media rather than through the proper channels to a government oversight agency, then a leaking employee may not be privy to the same protections. Though it would still be wise to consult with an attorney before taking any actions against the employee, this would be more for the purpose of properly handling discipline or a termination without running afoul of retaliation laws.
Participation in an Investigation
When there's an official investigation into misconduct in the workplace of pretty much any kind, employees are generally protected from retaliation for participating, unless they are discovered to have deliberately lied during that process. If legal authorities are asking, employees may have to reveal information an employer wouldn't want, and that employer would likely face legal consequences for taking action against that employee.
When Employees Come to You
When an employee comes to their boss with information about misconduct, or with any complaint, it is rather important to take the complaint seriously. If a complaint seems to require contacting the authorities, companies should contact their legal counsel for advice, and should hold off on "shooting the messenger."
If you are not sure if an employee has leaked information or acted as a legal whistleblower, talk to a local small business or employment attorney.