What Does Retaliation in the Workplace Mean? 2023

Most individuals know that there are regulations in place to protect employees from discrimination and harassment.

Many people are unaware, however, that these regulations also protect employees from retaliation.

Employers cannot retaliate against workers who file discrimination or harassment complaints or cooperate with workplace investigations.

Other negative employment actions, such as being refused a promotion or transfer to a more desirable position, as well as missing out on training or mentorship chances, might be considered punishment.

The most common sort of employee complaint received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is retaliation claims.

Employers frequently defend retaliation charges based on measures taken against the employee who filed the complaints in the first place, despite overcoming bogus allegations of discrimination or harassment.

Companies should remember how they respond to and handle employees.

However, if you’re curious about what retribution in the workplace entails, continue reading to learn more about workplace retaliation.

What Is Retaliation In The Workplace?

We know any adverse employment action taken by an employer against a complaining employee because of his or her complaint as retaliation.

The United States Supreme Court ruled that any negative action taken against a complaining employee might be considered retaliation if the conduct would deter a reasonable employee from filing a complaint in similar circumstances.

Any punitive or retaliatory acts taken against an employee after the employer is notified of the employee’s complaint of unlawful harassment or discrimination are illegal. That employee has participated in “protected action” by simply filing a complaint or objecting to a discriminatory practice.

When an employer retaliates against an employee who engages in a legally protected action, they know this as retaliation. Demotion, suspension, termination, wage decrease, or job or shift change are all examples of retaliation. Retaliation, on the other hand, can take many forms.

When an employee is dismissed, for example, it’s obvious that the employee’s behavior was bad. However, it isn’t always the case.

According to the United States Supreme Court, in certain situations, the facts of the situation must be taken into account.

It is criminal retaliation if the employer takes conduct that would discourage a reasonable person in the scenario from filing a complaint.

What Are The Examples Of Retaliation In The Workplace?

Any negative action done by an employer that is severe enough to dissuade a reasonable employee from exercising their legal rights is likely to be sufficient to sustain a legal claim of retaliation.

The following are examples of workplace retaliation:

  • Demotion – Loss of status, responsibilities, or seniority privileges associated with your position, or being assigned to a lower-ranking position 
  • Termination – Being fired from your job 
  • Salary reductions or loss of hours – Getting a pay cut or losing regularly scheduled hours
  • Exclusion – Being intentionally excluded from staff meetings, training, or other activities made available to fellow employees
  • Reassignment – Having your responsibilities reallocated or your schedule rearranged in a way that causes you unnecessary difficulty
  • Unjustified unfavorable performance reviews, warnings, or denial of a promotion you deserved because of poor performance.
  • Changes in employment responsibilities or work schedules;
  • Rejection of a promotion or salary boost.

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What Could Lead to Retaliation in the Workplace?

Every workplace is unique, and what might lead to retaliation differs as well. The following are some of the things that might lead to retaliation in the workplace:

  • Requesting or taking a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act 
  • Filing a claim against your employer with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • Complaining to your employer about workplace discrimination or harassment
  • Whistleblowing against your employer in an effort to thwart illegal or fraudulent 
  • Filing for workers’ compensation
  • Taking part in an EEOC or other legal proceeding against your employer as a witness

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What Can You Do When You Are Experiencing Retaliation In The Workplace?

Although it may appear that they may see any action done against an employee following a complaint as “retaliatory,” employers are allowed to take adverse measures that are justified by a reasonable business reason and unconnected to the fact that the employee complained.

When you believe there will be a retaliation, time is crucial. The closer an adverse action is done to the moment an employee complains, the greater the potential of retaliation liability.

The following are the procedures you should take-

  • Be explicit in your queries. Your boss may have a completely valid justification.
  • If your boss cannot provide you with a reasonable explanation, express your worry that you are being retaliated against.
  • Your employer will almost certainly reject it, and employers can retaliate without recognizing it. Strictly emphasize that the bad action occurred only after you complained, and you should request that it be promptly stopped.
  • You may have to take your issues to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state’s fair employment agency if the employer refuses to confess his fault or rectify the situation.
  • You must show a nexus between your complaint and the employer’s retaliatory actions. The more proof you have to back up your assertion, the better.
  • Talk to your boss or a human resources representative about the reasons for these unpleasant acts.
  • Keep a record of the claimed retaliatory actions. Also, keep track of material from before the time you filed your complaint.
  • If you’ve been fired or have lost a considerable amount of money, you should speak with an attorney. A lawyer can assess the strength of your case, as well as the amount of compensation you’re likely to get.

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Are There Any Laws Against Retaliation In The Workplace?

Yes. The EEO regulations make it illegal to retaliate against job seekers or workers who exercise their right to be free of retaliation in the workplace, including harassment. Protected action refers to asserting these EEO rights in a variety of ways.

It makes it illegal to retaliate against applicants or employees for: 

  • filing or testifying in an EEO charge, complaint, inquiry, or lawsuit 
  • discussing employment discrimination, including harassment, with a supervisor or manager
  • Responding to questions during an employer’s investigation of alleged harassment
  • Refusing to follow orders that would lead to discrimination 
  • Resisting sexual advances or intervening to protect others 
  • Requesting accommodations for a disability or religious practice 
  • Inquiring about salary information from managers or coworkers to uncover potentially discriminatory wages
  • Participating in a complaint process is protected from retaliation under all circumstances. 

Other anti-retaliatory actions are protected as long as the employee suspected that anything at work was violating EEO regulations, even if he or she did not use legal terms to express it.

However, taking part in EEO activities does not exclude an employee from all disciplinary action or dismissal.

Employers are permitted to punish or fire non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory grounds that would otherwise result in such actions to motivate employees.

An employer, on the other hand, may not take any action in response to EEO activities that might deter someone from fighting or reporting about discrimination in the future.

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What Are The Signs Of Retaliation in the Workplace?

Whether or not you pay attention, you can know when retaliation begins in the workplace by some of the symptoms you’ll see. The following are some symptoms of retaliation in the workplace:

#1. The Silent Treatment

If your boss, supervisor, or coworkers abruptly ignore you following a complaint, you should be suspicious.

They might interpret isolation or quiet treatment as revenge. Perhaps your boss has slandered you in front of your coworkers, or your boss has isolated you from the rest of the firm.

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#2. An Unusual Shift Change Has Occurred.

Companies that work in shifts usually change things up for their staff every now and again. Because certain shifts are more exhausting, risky, or inconvenient for employees, the reassignment makes sense. As a result, reassignment alone does not imply retaliatory actions.

#3. Working Hours Are Being Cut Back.

An employer might take retaliatory action against you by decreasing your working hours. Those who are paid hourly will have their salary decrease.

Perhaps you work part-time and your job description doesn’t mention how many hours you must work every week. Alternatively, perhaps you work a set amount of hours plus overtime regularly.

#4. Opportunities Denied

Many businesses offer possibilities for employees to advance in their careers. An employer could, for example:

  • Provide continual training for their employees;
  • Allow qualified workers to take time off for additional training, license, or recertification;
  • Organize workshops on pertinent topics.

As a result, if your company used to offer such possibilities but no longer does, you should be cautious. If the halt hasn’t touched everyone in the firm, you should be anxious.

#5. Excessive Micromanagement

People have different management styles. Some people like to take a hands-off attitude, while others want to monitor every scenario meticulously. As a result, even if you don’t like it, micromanagement isn’t a problem in and of itself.

The issue emerges when micromanagement gets severe only after you have filed a complaint at work. You should be suspicious if you are the only one at the receiving end of excessive micromanagement.

#6. Extremely Bad Performance Evaluation

An extremely harsh rating for employees who receive frequent performance assessments might be a retaliatory indicator. Of course, you must take the unfavorable assessment into account in the context of the situation.

Consider an employee who has always received positive feedback, hasn’t modified their work routine or productivity, and has never been subjected to any disciplinary proceedings or warnings.

The following performance review is extremely unfavorable after the employee testifies in a hearing against their company. Retaliation in the workplace might befall such an individual.

How to Prevent Retaliation in the Workplace?

The employer has a lot of control over workplace retaliation. He can do this by putting in place safeguards to prevent retaliation in the workplace.

Some strategies for avoiding retribution in the workplace include:

#1. Develop Policies That Spell Out Your Company’s Retaliation Policies.

Include a section in your employee handbook that defines workplace retaliation and outlines your anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies.

This policy should make workers feel comfortable addressing management or the human resources department with any accusations of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation.

#2. Make A Record Of Each Meeting And Issue A Warning

Each disciplinary or warning meeting should be documented so that the supervisor can establish that warnings were delivered before taking action.

Managers should also gather emails, files, and projects to show that the employee performed poorly or acted inappropriately.

#3. Ensure That Your Employees’ Information Is Kept Private

If your employees have any complaints about company leaders, supervisors, or managers, encourage them to first meet with the human resources department.

The human resources representative should ensure that they keep the information shared by the employee in their meeting private.

They should also assure the employee they’ll protect them from any possible retaliation related to this complaint.

Frequently Asked Questions

An employee’s engagement in a protected activity — often a complaint of discrimination or harassment — an adverse action taken by the employer/manager against the employee, and a causal relationship between the protected activity and the adverse action, according to the EEOC.

Harassing behavior, significant changes in job duties or working conditions, and even threats of personnel action are all examples of retaliatory actions. That policy also prohibits retaliation against workers who engage in protected actions under Personnel Bulletin 18-01.

There are signs of retaliation. Demotions, terminations, and even wage reductions should all be on your radar.

As soon as you get a complaint regarding workplace discrimination or harassment, you must take the following precautions: develop a policy against retribution, speak with the complaining employee, keep any complaints discreet, and document it.

Subtle retaliation is a less overt way of engaging in actions that are detrimental to an employee. Subtle behaviors may be more difficult to identify as retaliatory, yet they can still be retaliatory.


When a company is accused of illegal behavior, having an effective workplace investigation process in place can help avoid the natural “knee-jerk” reaction.

By providing structure and setting expectations, company policies, as well as training of employees and supervisors on such policies and handling of employee complaints, reduce the risk of the impulse taking over.

Not every unpleasant work experience is evidence of retaliation, and a lawyer will need to consider all of the facts.



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