What is Workplace Retaliation? Know Your Rights!

Ever felt like you’re being punished at work for standing up for what’s right? That’s workplace retaliation, and it’s more common than you might think.

Imagine being demoted after you’ve blown the whistle on unsafe practices, or suddenly getting the cold shoulder from your boss for taking a stand against unfair treatment.

It’s subtle, it’s sneaky, and it’s definitely not allowed.

Read on as we unravel the twisted web of workplace retaliation, where doing the right thing can sometimes land you in hot water, and learn how to spot it and stop it in its tracks.

An image illustration of workplace retaliation
Photo by Mark Airs/Ikon Images/Getty Images

What Is Workplace Retaliation?

Employers engage in retaliation when they punish employees for participating in legally protected activities.

This punishment may take various forms, including demotion, discipline, termination, salary reduction, or reassignment of job or shift. However, retaliation can also manifest in subtler ways.

While some actions, such as termination, clearly constitute retaliation, others may not be as evident.

In such cases, the circumstances of the situation must be taken into account, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

For instance, while a change in job shift might not bother many employees, it could significantly disrupt the life of a parent with young children and a less flexible schedule.

As long as the adverse action taken by the employer would dissuade a reasonable person in the same situation from making a complaint, it constitutes illegal retaliation.

When is Retaliation Not Accepted?

Retaliation is not allowed when workers speak up about discrimination or harassment at a workplace.

Even if the complaint turns out to be mistaken, as long as it was made honestly, you’re still protected from retaliation by the law.

Moreover, you’re protected if you help with an investigation or if you’re a witness in court about these issues.

Additionally, the law also protects employees who help in EEOC investigations or testify in court cases related to discrimination.

This includes when you talk about problems at work, like safety issues, or if you need to take time off for certain family or medical reasons.

A recent Supreme Court decision confirmed that employees who participate as witnesses in internal investigations are also protected.

Furthermore, various federal laws safeguard other activities, such as employees who report unsafe working conditions or take legally-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Additionally, some state laws prevent employers from retaliating against employees for different reasons, like filing a workers’ compensation claim.

How Can I Figure Out Workplace Retaliation?

Figuring out if your boss is punishing you for complaining can be tricky.

Note that, if you report bad behavior from your boss and they start acting differently, it’s not always retaliation.

For instance, if they become more professional but less friendly, that’s not retaliation. It’s only retaliation if it hurts your job in some way.

However, if something bad happens to you at work right after you’ve made a complaint, you might be right to think it’s retaliation.

For instance, if you get fired for not fitting in with the team right after you reported your boss for inappropriate behavior. You may have a case of workplace retaliation.

Remember, not all retaliatory act is easy to spot or puts your job at risk.

Sometimes it’s things like getting a bad performance review out of nowhere, your boss watching your every move, or not being included in meetings for a project you’re on.

Examples of what is Considered Workplace Retaliation

Here are some things managers might do that the EEOC says are workplace retaliation:

  • Not letting employees go to meetings or important work events.
  • Moving an employee to a different job or location.
  • Not giving an employee a raise or promotion they deserve.
  • Giving the employee a bad review.
  • Making the workplace feel unsafe or uncomfortable for the employee.
  • Limiting how much the employee can work.

Sometimes, retaliation can be subtle and not easy to notice by bosses. Here are signs of subtle retaliation:

  • Ignoring the employee or leaving them out of group activities.
  • Being overly picky about the employee’s work, even though it was good before.
  • Spreading false rumors about the employee.

What To Do If You Suspect Workplace Retaliation

If you think your boss is treating you badly because you spoke up about something, talk to your boss or someone in charge like HR.

Ask why they’re doing it. Maybe they have a good reason, like moving your shift because there’s an opening or demoting you because your work hasn’t been good.

If they can’t explain it well or deny doing anything wrong, tell them you think it’s because you spoke up. Additionally, ask them to stop treating you badly.

If they won’t listen or fix the problem, you might need to report to a government agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state’s fair employment group.

Steps to Follow If You Suspect Retaliation at Work

If you suspect workplace retaliation, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Document Everything: Keep a record of any incidents or changes in your workplace behavior that you believe could be retaliation. Include dates, times, and descriptions of what happened.
  2. Review Company Policies: Check your company’s policies and procedures related to harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. Understand your rights and the steps for reporting such incidents.
  3. Talk to HR: If you feel comfortable, speak with someone in your company’s Human Resources department about your concerns. They should investigate the situation and take appropriate action.
  4. Seek Legal Advice: If you believe you are experiencing retaliation and your company is not addressing the issue, consult with an employment lawyer. An employment lawyer can advise you on your legal rights and options.
  5. Consider External Reporting: If internal channels are not effective or if you believe the retaliation is severe, you may file a complaint with external agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state’s labor department.
  6. Take Care of Yourself: Dealing with workplace retaliation can be stressful. Make sure to prioritize your well-being and seek support from friends, family, or a therapist if needed.

Remember, it’s important to address workplace retaliation promptly and assertively to protect your rights and maintain a healthy work environment.


And there you have it, the ins and outs of workplace retaliation.

It’s the sneaky shadow in the office that can turn your job into a game of survival. But remember, knowledge is power.

By understanding what retaliation looks like and knowing your rights, you can shine a light on unfair practices and stand tall.

Don’t let fear silence you; your voice is your strongest tool.

So, speak up, reach out, and let’s ensure the workplace remains a fair and just battleground for all.

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