What is Workplace Retaliation?
Although there are laws meant to encourage workers to report unsafe and dangerous conditions in the workplace or to speak out about illegal practices their employer engages in, many workers are still hesitant to do so because they’re afraid of losing their job or otherwise being punished for speaking out. The same laws that give workers the legal right to complain about such things also make it illegal for employers to punish workers for doing so. When an employer punishes a worker for filing a complaint about something illegal, this is known as workplace retaliation. Unfortunately, even though workplace retaliation is illegal, it still happens.
The EEOC defines workplace retaliation as when an employer, employment agency, or labor organization takes an adverse action against a covered individual because he or she engaged in a protected activity. Workplace retaliation is done with the intent of punishing workers for doing something they are legally entitled to do. Regardless of whether or not a complaint turns out to be true or unfounded, as long as a complaint is made in good faith, workers have a legal right to speak out about things that are dangerous and/or illegal and employers are not allowed to punish workers for exercising that right.
Protected activities include things such as bringing dangerous conditions or illegal practices to the attention of a supervisor or manager, filing a complaint with an organization such as OSHA, refusing to participate in illegal practices, requesting a reasonable accommodation due to a disability, or participating in an investigation conducted by a third party. It is also illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee or job applicant for having filed a complaint against a previous employer. An adverse action covers things such as being fired, demoted, having hours or pay reduced, being denied a promotion or raise, unjustified negative comments in professional reviews, assault, being reassigned to a different shift, or being transferred to a different location.
If you think you have been the victim of workplace retaliation, you will need to be able to prove the action was the direct result of the action you took. For example, a negative comment in a performance review would also have to reflect a sudden change in the employer’s attitude. If a worker with a consistent pattern of coming in late reports an unsafe condition, then is fired one month later after another performance review points out their consistent tardiness, it would be difficult to prove it was workplace retaliation because the worker had a documented history of being late. But if a worker who has consistently been praised by supervisors for their punctuality and cooperation files a complaint, then suddenly gets a review labeling them as “difficult” and “uncooperative,” the connection would be much easier to prove.
If you have reason to believe you are being retaliated against, the first thing you should do is talk to the person in charge of human resources. They might be able to offer perfectly logical and reasonable explanations for the changes you’ve noticed. If they aren’t able to give a good explanation, consult the EEOC or other organization that handles employee rights.