4 Surprising Types of Workplace Retaliation You Need to Tell Your Boss About

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
July 23, 2024 at 9:47PM UTC

If you’re experiencing retaliation in the workplace due to action you’ve taken against your employer, it can wreak havoc on your life. You might be experiencing further harassment or intimidation, and your career can even be compromised. 

It’s important to know that workplace retaliation is unacceptable and in many cases unlawful. If you believe your employer is retaliating against you, here’s what to do.

What is workplace retaliation?

Workplace retaliation consists of actions taken against an employee due to her engaging in activities or actions against her employer that are protected by law, such as filing a complaint due to sexual harassment or discrimination. Retaliatory steps might include demotions, discipline, pay reduction, changes in job duties or benefits, poor performance reviews, reassignments or others. In order for it to be deemed workplace retaliation, these steps must be taken because of the employee’s complaint (and not because of her performance or other issues).

Retaliation can occur whether or not the employee’s complaint has merit. For example, if the employee files a sexual harassment complaint that has been deemed baseless, any behavior the employer took against that employee because of that complaint can still be considered retaliatory, assuming the complaint was made in “good faith.”

Is retaliation in the workplace illegal?

And is retaliation discrimination?

Workplace retaliation that arises from complaints about matters such as harassment or discrimination, along with some other issues, depending on the state, is illegal. This is also true of whistleblowers and others who file complaints regarding unsafe working conditions and certain matters, including denying employees legally-protected rights and entitlements. Again, it doesn’t matter whether or not the complaint turns out to be unfounded. The law protects individuals against retaliation in these circumstances no matter how the complaint was filed — with your company’s HR department, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or with another outside authority.

Some states have additional laws regarding workplace retaliation. Keep in mind that not all circumstances involving retaliation are illegal, however. 

What are some examples of retaliation?

Retaliation can take many forms. Below are some examples of illegal retaliation in the workplace.

Example No. 1

An employee has filed a complaint of harassment against her colleague, saying that they have been mocking her because of her religious beliefs. The employee is then moved to a different department, one that is less desirable than her current department.

Example No. 2

In a real-life case, Chantal Charles, a Haitian, African American employee of Boston’s Treasury Department who had worked there for almost 30 years, filed a complaint of racial discrimination against the city alleging that she was being denied compensation in the form of raises, overtime and more because of her race and that her position was given a less-qualified man, who was white. She also claimed she was disciplined for the first time and received a poor performance evaluation in her time working for the city after the complaint. She was ultimately awarded nearly $11 million in damages for the incidents. 

Example No. 3

A pregnant worker files a complaint with the EEOC claiming that her employer violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act by failing to provide her with reasonable accommodations. After the complaint, her employer fires her, alleging that the dismissal is due to poor performance and not the complaint. The worker, however, believes the two events are connected and that the firing was retaliation.

Example No. 4

An employee has reported unsafe working conditions at their employer’s facilities. Their employer has retaliated by disciplining and demoting the employee they believe filed the claim, saying they’re not a team player. However, the employee is protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act, and this form of retaliation is illegal.

How do you deal with retaliation at work?

1. Discuss the situation with your employer.

It may be intimidating, especially since you’ve already filed some sort of complaint against your employer whether internally or with an outside agency, but before you proceed with a retaliation complaint, you’ll need to address it with your supervisor and HR. (If your supervisor is obviously retaliating against you in a way that is in any way physically or psychologically harmful and confronting them would put you further in harm’s way, go straight to HR.) It’s possible that there’s an entirely valid explanation for what’s happening that has nothing to do with you. For example, there might be a company-wide reorganization taking place due to changing priorities or funding.

2. Gather evidence.

Document any and all retaliatory incidents that take place. Do so immediately after the incidents occur so they’re fresh in your mind. You should also gather other evidence supporting your claim. For example, if you had always received glowing performance reviews prior to you making a complaint and then immediately began receiving poor reviews, have both sets of reviews on hand. The timing of the incidents can also support your accusation of retaliation: if, for example, you were demoted or reassigned immediately following your supervisor becoming aware of your complaint, this is evidence that the events are linked.

3. Follow procedures as laid out in your company policy.

Your employer probably has a procedure for filing a grievance. Try to follow this as closely as possible. You’ll likely find it in your company handbook. This might also tell you what to expect. However, again, if you believe following this procedure would incite further retaliation (for example, if you’re expected to confront someone who has sexually harassed you face-to-face and alone) or bring you harm in any way, skip this step.

4.  Know your rights.

Understand what your rights are as an employer who has filed a complaint against your employer. For example, you should review the federal and state laws, such as the Whistleblower Protection Act, concerning retaliation. Remember that not all retaliatory behavior is illegal, so it’s important to recognize when it is.

5. Get outside help.

If you address the problem with your employer (or if you’re unable to due to the circumstances outlined above or others) and the problem isn’t resolved or they’re unwilling to admit that they’ve done anything wrong, you should seek outside help. This will probably mean filing a complaint with the EEOC and/or consulting with an employment attorney. They will assess and, in some cases, investigate the matter, as well as advise you on how to proceed. Remember to show any evidence, including your documentation of the events that have occurred.

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