The Ugly Truth About Workplace Retaliation: Common Examples & How to Deal

Imagine you’re an operations manager at a manufacturing plant who complains to your superiors about safety violations that put workers and bystanders at risk. In the months after you voice your concerns, you start losing shifts and you get denied a promotion and raise that you were otherwise expecting as a sure thing. In the following year, you watch multiple junior employees get promoted above you while you get stonewalled by management.

Workplace retaliation can have devastating effects not just on your career but on your mental health. In many cases, workplace retaliation is evidence of a hostile work environment.

Everyone deserves a workplace free of this type of retaliatory, harmful behavior. If you suspect you’re being targeted with retaliation, the signs may not be as clear as you’d expect. Once you realize what’s happening, you can take steps to protect yourself and recover damages.

What Is the Definition of Workplace Retaliation?

Workplace retaliation is defined as an employer taking negative action against an employee for engaging in a protected activity. Protected activities cover legal rights like:

  • Taking legally-protected pregnancy leave or family leave
  • Reporting safety violations under state or federal law
  • Filing a complaint based on harassment or discrimination
  • Asking for reasonable accommodations for pregnancy or disability
  • Acting as a witness for a harassment or discrimination claim

Under the law, your company cannot retaliate against you for these types of actions. But retaliation can look like more than just getting fired or demoted – especially if your company knows the law and tries to cover up its actions to not appear retaliatory.

Examples of Retaliation in the Workplace

Sometimes, retaliation is overt and obvious – for example, getting fired immediately after filing a harassment complaint with HR. But in many cases, retaliation can be subtle and insidious.

Workplace retaliation could happen to anyone, at any level of a company.

  • You join an existing team at your company where you witness a supervisor make off-color jokes. After a week of similar comments, you bring up your concerns with HR. The next week, you find out that your team scheduled meetings without you and has started excluding you from team communications. Your supervisor starts dumping their tedious, low-level work tasks on you and passing you up for more interesting projects.
  • You’re a manager who takes pregnancy or parental leave as provided under the law. When you return from your time away, you find out that your direct reports have been assigned to another manager and you’ve essentially been demoted, with a lower salary than your colleagues. To make matters worse, your supervisor keeps making negative comments to your colleagues about your choice to have children.
  • Your coworker keeps asking you out on dates even after you tell them no and ask them to stop. When you complain to your supervisor, they brush off the incidents and tell you not to be so sensitive. Soon afterward, your coworker starts making you the target of passive-aggressive comments in meetings and emails. You find out that your supervisor told your coworker about your sexual harassment complaint against them.
  • You’re hard of hearing and use hearing aid devices. However, you still struggle to process sounds and have conversations at work because your desk is close to a loud common area. You ask your supervisor for an accommodation by moving your desk to a quieter area, but they refuse. Instead, they start giving you an even harder time when you can’t respond or you ask people around you to repeat themselves. They also do not offer you training that is available to other employees with similar positions.
  • You’re a customer service representative who witnesses your coworkers behaving in a discriminatory way against non-English speaking customers. You bring up your concerns with your supervisor, who says they’ll look into the issue but never follows up. In the weeks after, your performance reviews sink even though you’re not doing your job any differently. Your supervisor writes you up for falling short of expectations that are never communicated to you. You get put on a performance improvement plan but nothing you do satisfies your supervisor’s demands and you get laid off within a few months.
  • A long-term executive of the company makes a habit of calling women workers pet names such as “honey” or “baby.” When you complain about this to HR, instead of addressing the executive’s behavior, your company transfers you to another department.

These examples are not a complete list. Every employment case is unique and workplace retaliation can take many forms. To find out if you have a claim for retaliation and how to proceed, you should talk to a workplace retaliation lawyer as soon as possible.

Is Workplace Retaliation Illegal?

Yes. Under both federal and California state law, it’s illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for engaging in your legally protected rights. If you experience harassment or retaliation at work, you could file a lawsuit for retaliation or wrongful termination.

What makes a strong retaliation case? One of the most important parts of an employment rights case is to gather evidence to protect yourself. A company that retaliates against its employees is also likely to take other actions to throw you under the bus.

For example, your managers may go back through your performance reports and change them after the fact to show that you were underperforming as a way to give them a “legitimate” reason for taking disciplinary action against you. Your company may delete records of emails that support your position or revoke your access to files and accounts without warning, cutting off your access to the evidence you need for your case.

As a result, if you suspect your employer may retaliate against you, you should make and keep copies of whatever relevant employment records you can for yourself. You are also allowed to make a request to inspect and copy your employment records from your employer, which is required to maintain records for up to three years. An experienced employment lawyer can help you evaluate which documents are the most critical for your case to succeed. Your lawyer can also help you choose the best course forward to protect yourself and your career.

At Yash Law Group, we are experienced in employment and labor law litigation and can help. Contact us now for your free consultation.

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