Many employees may not feel comfortable making a complaint against their employer because of fear of retaliation. Workplace retaliation is when an employer punishes or otherwise disciplines an employee for taking an action protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
These protected actions may be when an employee files a complaint or lawsuit against an employer, resists sexual advances from a manager, files a discrimination claim, and many others. When the employer responds with an adverse action against the worker for speaking out, retaliation is likely at play.
According to the EEOC, the standard for proving whether an action was retaliation “requires showing that the manager’s action might deter a reasonable person from opposing discrimination or participating in the EEOC complaint process.” The purpose of retaliation laws is thus to ensure that employees will actually say something when they’re treated unfairly instead of worrying about having to deal with the consequences.
For a retaliation claim to be proven, these three components must be found:
The employee took a protected action that the employer was aware of
The employer took an adverse action against the worker
The initial protected activity caused the subsequent adverse action
The EEOC says that retaliation is the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in the federal sector. But what do these cases actually look like? Will you know if it’s happening to you?
Let’s take a look at seven examples of workplace retaliation and a few real-life cases.
7 examples of workplace retaliation—and a few times they’ve happened in real life
1. Firing an employee for making a complaint
Employees may file a lawsuit against their company or make a discrimination claim against their manager for many reasons. These may include being treated unfairly because of their race, religion, or gender, or they were harassed by someone while on the job.
Sometimes managers may respond defensively to these actions. They may try to take matters into their own hands by firing the employee to get rid of the problem. But doing so would be considered retaliation since the manager is responding to a protected action that the worker took against them (i.e., the complaint).
One real example of this scenario was in 2019 at Eagle United Truck Wash, as recorded by the EEOC. The only Black employee at the organization complained to management because of racial epithets and insults his coworkers directed at him. The company responded by firing him the same day he complained about it.
2. Further harassment
Unfortunately, sometimes the retaliation comes in the form of even more discrimination or harassment. A manager may be enraged that the employee complained about them in the first place, and regardless of the outcome of the claim, the manager then takes out that anger on the worker by further harassing them directly because of what the employee did. This may be in the form of verbal or physical abuse or sexual harassment. If the manager makes the work environment hostile or uncomfortable in any way for the worker after they made a complaint, it is most likely considered workplace retaliation.
3. Demoting an employee
In other instances, a worker may get demoted. This could mean less pay or a different title that impacts the employee adversely in some way. The employer may be trying to show them their place, hoping they will not make other complaints, or they could be trying to send a message to other workers about what they will not tolerate. This example shows just how damaging these actions can be, as other employees may not feel like they can say anything in that environment if they were to experience discrimination or harassment.
Similarly, moving an employee to another department or office or reducing the number of hours they work against their will could also be forms of retaliation.
4. Hindering opportunities for promotion
Another example provided by the EEOC is a case where a worker filed unsuccessful complaints against her employer in the past and was now seeking a promotion in the same organization. Her manager had kept records about the complaint proceedings in her personnel file and discussed this information during the candidate review process.
The manager thus took retaliatory actions against the employee since saving the information in her file got in the way of her getting a promotion. The action was directly related to the initial protected complaints and played a major part in the decision not to promote her.
5. Taking away perks and benefits
The EEOC also dealt with a case in which a worker filed a complaint against their manager, and the manager responded by taking away the perk of using a government vehicle as part of their job. The manager still allowed another coworker to use the car during this time, so it was clearly a punishment. This is an example of how a simple action like taking away a benefit can be considered workplace retaliation.
6. Deliberately leaving them out
Another more subtle form of retaliation is when an employer starts leaving a worker out of meetings, activities, or other related events and communications because of the complaint they made. For example, maybe a leader at an advertising company decides to take an employee off of a big account for no reason other than that they complained about being harassed by a manager or coworker. This change may not be related to pay or title, but the employee will no longer get to participate in that project.
Sometimes these actions are obvious right away, but often it can take a while for the employee to notice the change. For example, it may take time for them to find out that their department has been meeting without them every week.
Read more: Where Sexism Hides in the Workplace
7. Giving poor performance reviews
The Boston Globe reported a story a few years ago about a woman of Haitian and African American descent who worked at the Treasury Department for the City of Boston as a senior administrative assistant. She filed a complaint against the city because she discovered she got paid less than her white coworkers. After she complained, her employer gave her poor job evaluations, which was found to be an act of retaliation. The plaintiff ended up winning $10.9 million in the case.
These real-life examples show that retaliation can take many different forms, but those three elements are always there: the employee made a complaint or took another protected action, the employer responded adversely, and the response was due to that protected complaint.