What You Should Know About Workplace Retaliation

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Retaliation is something that employers and employees should understand to ensure that rights aren’t encroached upon in the workplace.

Photo by Anthony Shkraba from Pexels

For example, if you’re an employer and your employee is hurt on the job, they can’t fear retaliation from you. Retaliation might include demotion, firing, or different treatment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says that retaliation is the most common issue that federal employees allege. They found that it’s the most common type of discrimination in federal sector cases.

There are similar issues in the private sector, and the following are some things you should know about retaliation in the workplace, as well as how it can affect relationships between employers and employees.

An Overview

There are laws that protect employees from harassment and discrimination, but these laws can often protect an employee from retaliation. That means that an employer can’t punish their employees for making a complaint about harassment or discrimination or for participating in workplace investigations.

Punishment can, as was touched on, refer to firing or demotion, but it’s not exclusive to those things. Retaliation can also include being denied a raise or missing out on new opportunities in the workplace.

Essentially, retaliation means that an employer punishes their employee for doing something that’s legally protected.

Sometimes retaliation is fairly clear—for example if it involves a firing. In other cases, it’s not as clear. According to the Supreme Court, the circumstances have to be considered.

When Do Retaliation Laws Apply?

Federal laws provide protection to employees from retaliation when an employee makes a complaint. That complaint can be internal, such as to HR, or it can be to an outside, third-party body like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The complaint can be about harassment or discrimination.

Even if the complaint doesn’t end up being true, the retaliation laws still protect the employee making it, as long as it was made in good faith.

The law protects employees cooperating in investigations and litigation as well.

There are also other federal laws that protect certain activities. For example, whistleblowers are often protected by federal law, as are people who take FMLA leave.

In some states, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees for other particular reasons, including filing a workers’ compensation claim.

When Is It Retaliation?

It might not be immediately obvious that an employer is retaliating against you. As an example, you might notice that once you report what you believe is harassment by your manager or supervisor, their behavior changes toward you. That’s not necessarily retaliation, though.

Retaliation is a circumstance that is adversely affecting your employment.

If you made a claim against your supervisor and they fire you shortly thereafter, that could be an example of retaliation.

It’s not automatically retaliation. It may be that an employer has a legitimate reason for firing you, which is why retaliation gets somewhat tricky.

Other examples of retaliation that could be more subtle include getting a bad performance review, micromanagement from your supervisor, or being excluded from certain meetings for a project that, until your complaint, you’d been working on.

Retaliation could mean more scrutiny, transferring an employee to a less desirable schedule or position, or doing something that makes the employee’s work more difficult.

What Should You Do?

From the perspective of an employee, what should you do if suspect that your supervisor is retaliating against you?

It’s good to start by asking questions because your employer might have a very good reason for whatever they’re doing. If you ask questions and there doesn’t seem to be a reason, then you should tell your employer that you feel like you’re being retaliated against.

As an employer, it’s possible to engage in this type of behavior without realizing you’re doing it. If an employee comes to you and says they feel like they’re the victim of retaliation, then you should remedy your behavior immediately.

If an employer doesn’t admit what they’re doing is wrong or take steps to correct the issue, then as an employee, you should go to the Equal Opportunity Commission or the fair employment agency in your state.

If you believe you are being subjected to retaliation and your employee won’t fix the problem, then you might need evidence to show a link. Start to document the behavior.

As an employer, you need to be careful about possible retaliation, including things that could fall into this category that you don’t necessarily even realize you’re doing.

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