Protecting your rights against workplace retaliation

Most people are already aware of the laws protecting employees from harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Many, however, do not know that these laws also exist to protect employees from retaliation.

This means that it’s illegal for employers to take adverse actions against employees who file a harassment or discrimination complaint or participate in an investigation. Apart from demoting or firing, these adverse employment actions can also include denying a raise, transferring to a less desirable position, or excluding an employee from training or mentoring opportunities.

About workplace retaliation

Workplace retaliation occurs in situations where an employer penalizes an employee who engages in legal action. 

In most cases, the employer’s action is clearly a form of retaliation, like when the employee is fired. But some situations can be a little more complicated. In these cases, employees need to consider the circumstances of each situation. Transferring an employee to another shift, for example, may not exactly be unfavorable to most workers, but it could be highly disadvantageous for a parent who’s currently taking care of young children. 

If the employer’s adverse action deters any reasonable individual involved in the situation from filing a complaint, it is considered illegal retaliation. 

When is retaliation prohibited?

Employees are protected by federal law against forms of retaliation should they make a complaint against workplace harassment or discrimination. As long as the complaint was made under good faith, this will apply even if the claim turns out to be unproven, 

Employees who cooperate in investigations or serve as witnesses are also protected by federal law. Additionally, other federal laws also protect actions such as reporting dangerous working conditions or taking a legally protected leave from work.

Some state laws prohibit retaliatory action from employers for other reasons, such as filing a worker’s compensation claim. 

Is your employer retaliating against you?

In some situations, it’s difficult to say for certain whether or not your employer is retaliating against you. For example, you complain about something your manager did, which you believe to be a form of harassment. Afterward, you notice that his attitude towards you has changed. He’s now acting less friendly than he was in the past. This isn’t retaliation – only changes that affect your employment adversely are considered retaliatory.

However, if something that’s obviously a negative action occurs shortly after you’ve made a complaint, there could cause for concern. For example, if your supervisor fires you for your work performance the following week after you complained about sexual harassment, then there’s a good chance you have a case. 

Take note, however, that not every retaliatory action is obvious, or could threaten your position in the company. It could come in other forms, such as an unfair performance review, your supervisor constantly assigning heavy workloads, or excluding you from meetings or projects you’re involved with.      

What to do in case you suspect retaliation 

If you suspect retaliation from your employer, the first thing you should do is to have a conversation with your supervisor or someone from human resources to discuss the intentions behind these negative acts. Try to ask specific questions to shed more light on the situation, as there could be perfectly reasonable explanations behind the actions, after all.

However, if your supervisor or HR representative fails to give you a sufficient and legitimate explanation, express your concern about possible retaliation against you. Your employer may act doubtful and downright dismissive towards your concern, but the truth is that many employers retaliate against their employees without them realizing it. It’s important to point out that the negative act occurred after you’ve made a complaint, and that you want it to stop immediately.

Should the employer dismiss your concern by denying their wrongdoing or not making any effort to solve the problem, you may have to contact your state’s fair employment agency or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to voice your concern. 

Building a case

If your employer is unwilling to correct the problem, you will need proof that connects your complaint (or any act which you believe triggered the retaliatory action) to the negative actions shown towards you. 

Document and create a timeline of the alleged retaliatory actions, and keep track of any relevant details that occurred before you filed a complaint. For example, if your supervisor gave you a poor performance review after you made a complaint, keep a record of any messages or emails showing your supervisor’s approval of your work performance prior to the complaint.

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