What is Retaliation in the Workplace?

Workplace retaliation occurs when an employer punishes an employee for engaging in a legal activity that is protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

If an employee thinks their boss is treating them unfairly or wrongly after they’ve done something protected by workplace rules, they might feel it’s punishment.

Moreover, employees who experience such punishment may believe that their manager is acting unlawfully.

Therefore, managers, human resources personnel, and other employees must learn what constitutes workplace retaliation and how to conduct thorough investigations when employees make complaints.

By knowing the laws and policies on workplace and employment retaliation, employers can also prevent such situations from happening again.

An image representing Retaliation in a workplace
Source: levineblit

What is Retaliation in the Workplace?

Retaliation in the workplace happens when an employer or someone in charge of a company reacts negatively towards an employee who has formally complained about discrimination or harassment.

Filing a complaint is seen as a “protected activity” by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

This means that it’s unlawful for the employer to respond to the complaint with punishment or inappropriate actions.

Examples of Workplace Retaliation

Workplace retaliation can take on different forms, so it’s important to recognize and deal with each type effectively.

Some common examples include:

  • Unfairly negative performance evaluations: Employers may unfairly criticize an employee’s performance to undermine them after they’ve voiced concerns.
  • Harassment: Subjecting an employee to unwelcome behaviors that create discomfort at work.
  • Verbal abuse: Using disrespectful, inappropriate, or offensive language towards an employee.
  • Intentional exclusion: Deliberately leaving an employee out of meetings, team activities, or important communications.
  • Demotion: Downgrading an employee to a lower position as punishment.
  • Reduced working hours: Cutting an employee’s hours, significantly affects their income.
  • Termination: Firing an employee in retaliation for filing a complaint.
  • Refusal to hire/rehire: Rejecting an employee for employment or reemployment due to previous complaints about sexual harassment or discrimination.
  • Transfer to less desirable positions: Moving an employee to less favorable job roles or locations.
  • Denial of promotion: Withholding deserved promotions as a form of retaliation.
  • Violation of employee rights: Ignoring or denying an employee’s rights, such as refusing leave requests, as a way to retaliate.
  • Workplace bullying: Persistent actions aimed at belittling, intimidating, or undermining an employee.

What are the Common Triggers of Retaliation at Work?

Workplace retaliation often occurs when an employee engages in what’s termed as ‘protected activities’.

These are typically legal actions by an employee that might be seen as disruptive or challenging by the employer.

Here are some common triggers:

  • Filing a complaint or grievance: When an employee formally raises concerns about unfair treatment, discrimination, or unsafe working conditions, it could lead to retaliation from the employer.
  • Assisting a coworker in complaining: Employees may face retaliation for supporting a coworker or helping them file a complaint, even if they’re not directly involved.
  • Participating in an investigation: Employees who cooperate with internal or external investigations into company practices might become targets for retaliation.
  • Whistleblowing: Employees who report illegal activities, corruption, or unethical behavior within their organization often face retaliation.
  • Refusing to participate in illegal activities: Employers may retaliate against employees who refuse to engage in unlawful or unethical activities at work.
  • Requesting reasonable accommodations: If an employee asks for accommodations under laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), they may encounter retaliation.
  • Opposing discrimination or harassment: Employees who speak up against or resist discriminatory or harassing behavior in the workplace can trigger retaliation.

By understanding these common triggers, employers can take preventive measures to stop retaliation, while employees can be aware of their rights and protections at work.

Strategies for Preventing and Reducing Retaliation at Work

To prevent and reduce workplace retaliation, you need to take proactive steps and use different methods.

Here are some ways to help create a strong and fair work environment:

  • Set Clear Rules: Make sure everyone knows that retaliation is not allowed. Have clear rules on reporting it and show you treat everyone fairly.
  • Create a Respectful Environment: Encourage honesty and respect. Everyone should follow the rules and be accountable for their actions.
  • Support Employees: Give them a way to report retaliation privately. Offer support and help for those who go through it.
  • Investigate Fairly: If someone reports retaliation, look into it fairly and quickly. Make sure the investigation is fair and handled carefully.
  • Keep it Private and Take Action: If retaliation is confirmed, fix it right away. Punish the person responsible and make things right for the victim. Tell everyone that revenge is not okay and deal with complaints fast.
  • Teach Everyone Their Role: Make sure everyone knows what to do if they face retaliation. Educate them so they can help make the workplace safe.
  • Train and Spread Awareness: Teach employees about their rights and company rules. Use campaigns to raise awareness about retaliation and how to stop it.

Workplace Retaliation Frequently Asked Questions

What are some other activities that the EEOC protects?

Employees can do some legal activities without being punished by their employers or managers.

These activities are protected by the EEOC. Some examples are:

  • Complaining to human resources or management about discrimination at work by a coworker or a boss
  • Participating in a discrimination investigation or lawsuit against the company
  • Charging a manager or other company leaders with discrimination

What are some false claims of workplace retaliation?

Sometimes an employee may think that their supervisor is retaliating against them when their supervisor is doing the right thing.

Here are some cases when a claim of workplace retaliation may be wrong:

  • If a supervisor has evidence of poor work performance by an employee and gives a bad evaluation
  • When a manager warns an employee several times about documented complaints of bad behavior and finally fires them
  • If a manager punishes an employee who often comes to work late

How do I check if an employee claims workplace retaliation?

If an employee tells a human resources manager that they feel that a supervisor is punishing them unfairly, you can check if this is true.

  • Ask human resources to talk to the supervisor and find out their side of the story and remind them of what workplace retaliation is and your policy on it.
  • You should also speak to any employees who see how the employee and the manager interact regularly to get another view of the situation.
  • You can then gather documents and reports that may show that the manager did or did not retaliate against the employee.
  • Do not share any personal information when doing this investigation.

Is workplace retaliation different from employee retaliation?

Workplace retaliation is about acts of punishment done to employees by managers, supervisors and coworkers, while employee retaliation is about acts done by an employee to an employer.

For example, an employee who feels that they were treated unfairly, fired or laid off may do something bad to their employer online or by spreading bad rumors about the company or its employees.


To sum up, workplace retaliation is a serious problem that harms both individuals and companies.

Additionally, it causes emotional stress, reduces productivity, and damages a company’s image.

However, by understanding what usually causes retaliation and its legal consequences, businesses can act early to stop it.

Remember, dealing with workplace retaliation requires effective training and a thoughtful plan.

Related Articles:

Leave a Comment