15 Jul 2021

Workplace Retaliation Guide: Know Your Rights


Workplace retaliation is something employees fear. It keeps too many people quiet in the face of adversity and injustice. In this guide, we want to offer some insight into your rights and protections as an employee. 

Oftentimes, people know that the law protects employees from discrimination, harassment, and other workplace issues. However, employees often don’t realize that these laws also protect them from employer retaliation. 

Simply put, this means that an employer has no right to punish employees for complaints or their participation in investigations. Moreover, “punishment” here means more than termination or demotion. It includes an array of negative actions, from denying a raise or transfer to missing out on opportunities. 

Let’s take a moment to explore this issue further. When you know your rights, you protect yourself and your co-workers from mistreatment in the workplace. 

What Is Workplace Retaliation? 

Workplace retaliation occurs whenever a company punishes an employee for a legally protected activity. Moreover, it includes any negative employment action the employer takes. 

  • Discipline 
  • Demotion 
  • Termination 
  • Salary reduction 
  • Reassignment

However, it’s possible for retaliation to be more subtle. In many cases, negative actions are clear. For example, termination is a common occurrence in retaliation cases. In other cases, it’s not so apparent. 

Per the U.S. Supreme Court, the circumstances matter. For instance, some job changes are not objectionable in the eyes of many employees. However, a change in shift potentially makes the life of a parent much more difficult. 

When the negative action might deter a reasonable person from making a complaint, it constitutes retaliation. In these instances, you have rights to consider. 

To better understand your options, seek the guidance of an employment lawyer in your area. 

Prohibited Retaliation

There are federal laws that protect employees from retaliation against complaints. This is true both for internal complaints and those to an entity such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). These protections cover complaints about an array of harassment and discrimination issues. 

Even when the claim turns out to be a mistake, employees who register complaints in good faith have protection. 

Additionally, the law protects employees who participate in investigations or act as witnesses in litigation. In a recent Supreme Court case, they confirmed protection for employee participation as a witness. Moreover, an array of federal laws protect other employee activities. 

One example is a “whistleblower” who registers complaints about unsafe conditions at work. This also includes anyone who takes protected FMLA leave.  

In addition to this, certain states prohibit retaliation against employees for other claims or complaints. Oftentimes, this includes claims for workers’ compensation. 

How to Recognize Workplace Retaliation

In certain circumstances, it’s difficult to identify workplace retaliation. When it hinges on the perspective of a “reasonable person,” it’s hard to know whether actions are truly negative. 

For instance, if an employee complains about a supervisor’s conduct and cites harassment, that supervisor’s demeanor likely changes. When the supervisor behaves more professionally, it isn’t necessarily retaliation. This is true even when they appear less friendly. 

For a retaliation case, only changes with an adverse impact on your employment meet the criteria. 

Alternatively, when the supervisor takes a clearly negative action after the complaint, it’s a red flag. In this instance, there’s a good reason for your suspicion. Let’s look at another example. 

An employee complains to management about sexual harassment. A week later, the boss fires them for not “being a team player.” There’s good reason to suspect workplace retaliation here. 

Still, not every act of retaliation is obvious. Moreover, not every change is a threat to your employment. At times, it comes in more subtle changes. 

  • A negative performance review 
  • Your boss micromanaging your tasks 
  • Sudden exclusion from a project 

In the right circumstances, these constitute retaliation. However, it’s understandable that not everyone recognizes it. When you need an advocate on your side, an employment attorney guides you through the process. 

What Do I Do if I Suspect Retaliation?

If you suspect workplace retaliation from your employer, your first step is to speak with a supervisor or human resources representative about the negative actions. You have the right to ask specific questions. In some cases, there are reasonable explanations behind what they do. 

For instance, they move you to the day shift because you previously expressed interest in it. Alternatively, a demotion stems from a series of poor performance reviews.

When they do not offer a legitimate explanation, it’s important to voice your concern. Oftentimes, employers deny this. In some cases, employers pursue illegal retaliation without realizing it. 

Be clear that the negative action occurred after your complaint and request that it cease immediately.  

When an employer refuses to admit wrongdoing or correct an issue, you have the option to file a complaint with the EEOC. Alternatively, a state employment agency is another option. For Texas employees, this is the Texas Workforce Commission. 

How to Build a Case 

When you suspect workplace retaliation and your employer refuses to act, it’s time to build a case. If you engage an employment lawyer, you have someone to help you gather evidence. Even when you want to go to the EEOC, it’s beneficial to seek the guidance of an attorney. 

In your case, it’s essential to establish a connection between your complaint or behavior and the retaliation by your employer. The more evidence you gather for your case, the stronger your claim. 

To build your case, document all the behavior you believe to be retaliatory. Moreover, track historical information prior to the date of your complaint. 

For instance, say your boss gives you a negative performance evaluation after your complaint. In this case, it’s important to find documents or messages that show praise for your work beforehand. 

Consult an Employment Lawyer

When you suspect workplace retaliation, it’s essential to seek the guidance of an employment lawyer. This is especially true in cases of termination or significant wage reduction. With a lawyer, you have someone to evaluate your claim. 

Moreover, they identify likely compensation and help you build your case. For workers in Houston, employment lawyer Clayton Craighead offers a reliable source of protection from workplace violations. From harassment to retaliation, Craighead provides the advocacy they need to hold employers accountable. 

Learn more about when to hire an employment lawyer here

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