April 7, 2022

Retaliation at work can take many forms. When organizations use retaliatory tactics in response to employees’ protected right to file good faith complaints, they create a toxic environment that undermines a positive, inclusive work culture — and put themselves at risk of costly claims. Ongoing anti-retaliation training is key to ensuring that managers and employees know what retaliation is and how to respond appropriately to complaints of harassment, discrimination and other misconduct.

What is retaliation?

Retaliation occurs when an employee suffers negative consequences because they engaged in what’s called “protected activities.” Under the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “protected activities” includes: 

  • Reporting inappropriate or unlawful conduct with a supervisor or manager.
  • Filing or being a witness in an EEOC charge, complaint, investigation or lawsuit.
  • Answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged discrimination or harassment.
  • Refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination.
  • Resisting sexual advances or intervening to protect others.
  • Requesting accommodation for a disability or a religious practice.
  • Asking managers or co-workers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages.

This protection enables individuals to feel secure that they can speak up when they witness misconduct without fearing retribution.

Organizations should watch for these 5 common types of workplace retaliation:

  1. Making a person’s job harder
    Reassigning an employee to another department, shift or location, reducing the number of hours they work or changing their work schedule to conflict with their family responsibilities, can be forms of retaliation intended to make an employee’s job harder or impossible to keep.
  2. Deliberately excluding employees
    Excluding an employee from projects, meetings, activities, training, events and communications because of a complaint they filed is considered retaliation.
  3. Hindering opportunities for promotion
    Bosses may retaliate against an employee by denying a promotion or raise. When someone makes a complaint and gets passed over for a promotion, organizations must be able to prove it is for a valid reason and not due to retribution.
  4. Giving unfair performance reviews
    A negative performance evaluation might be retaliatory if the protected employee has always had stellar reviews, hasn’t changed their routine or productivity and has never experienced any disciplinary actions or warnings.
  5. Blacklisting former employees
    After an employee quits or is dismissed, the former employer can be guilty of post-employment retaliation if it interferes with the employee’s attempts to acquire a new job, provides unfavorable work recommendations or falsehoods or tells a prospective employer about the employee’s complaint. 

How to avoid retaliation

To help organizations reduce the risk of retaliatory incidents, the EEOC recommends:

  • Creating a clearly written anti-retaliation policy and guidance on expectations of behavior with practical examples of what to do and not to do
  • Training all managers, supervisors and employees on the organization’s anti-retaliation policy and behaviors that are associated with retaliation
  • Sending a strong message from top management that retaliation is illegal and will not be tolerated
  • Providing guidance to managers and supervisors, who have been accused of discrimination or harassment on how to avoid interpersonal conflicts related to claims
  • Ensuring that retaliation claims are well documented

Traliant Insight

Ongoing anti-retaliation training, having clear organizational policies and reporting procedures in place, and creating trust in the workplace helps build a speak up culture where employees who experience or observe workplace misconduct can report it without the fear of retribution.