Retaliation is revenge and can conjure up notions of Liam Neeson going after his daughter’s kidnappers in "Taken." Workplace retaliation isn’t quite so dramatic. Or at least, it’s hopefully not quite that dramatic.
But workplace retaliation can be devastating, and it can (but doesn’t always) break the law. Understanding the rules around workplace retaliation is critical for Human Resources staff members, managers, and anyone who has a position of influence in the business.
What Does Retaliation Look Like?
Jane comes to HR and says,
John keeps asking me out on dates. I have told him no and asked him to stop.
John is a high performer, so you transfer Jane to another less desirable shift.
This is a classic case of retaliation: Jane complained about sexual harassment, and you punished her by moving her to a different shift. Now, you may say “but her pay remains the same, her title and seniority weren’t affected. This isn’t retaliation. And besides, Jane didn’t even say it was sexual harassment.”
The employee doesn’t have to use the magic words, sexual harassment, to receive legal protection for their actions. Jane complained about unwanted sexual behavior in her department; therefore it’s a sexual harassment complaint. The transfer retaliates against Jane.
In a second example, Bob has 40,000 Twitter followers, including several coworkers. He posts a picture of his paystub with the caption, "Can you believe that Acme Inc. pays such terrible wages?".
One of his coworkers takes a screenshot and presents it to you. Bob named the company, and many people have replied and retweeted his tweet. As a result, you call Bob into the office and tell him that he has violated the company’s social media policy, and for doing such, you are suspending him for two weeks without pay.
This is illegal retaliation for concerted activities. According to the National Labor Relations Board: If employees are fired, suspended, or otherwise penalized for taking part in a protected group activity, the National Labor Relations Board will fight to restore what was unlawfully taken away.
In other words, employees are allowed to discuss their working conditions with their coworkers, and talking about pay is covered by that law. It doesn’t matter that many others saw it on Twitter. The National Labor Relations Board still considers his comments concerted action.
Now, of course, there cases where retaliation is much more distinctly visible. Steve complains of racial discrimination. You immediately fire Steve for a poor attitude. But activities and actions like transfers are a lot more difficult to pin down.
Is Retaliation Always Illegal?
It’s not. Retaliation is only illegal when the action that precedes the retaliation is protected by law. This can vary from state to state. It’s always illegal to retaliate against an employee for actions such as sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and concerted workplace activities. Some states have whistleblower protections that protect employees who bring up any variety of illegal activities, but not all.
If an employee makes a complaint that is unfounded, retaliation can be legal, and it can be illegal. For instance, if Jane complains that John is sexually harassing her, and you investigate and find out that actually John just asked her out one time. Factually, you found that Jane said no and he never bothered her again.
But, you still cannot retaliate against Jane as long as she genuinely believed that John behaved illegally. But, if you investigate and find out that Jane wanted John’s better shift, so she made up her complaint, then you can take action and retaliate.
The critical issue is that an employee must have a sincere belief that what they reported is illegal. Otherwise, retaliation is allowed.
Retaliation Doesn’t Stop Consequences
You may have a situation in which an employee is a poor performer, and just before you were going to discipline or terminate the employee, he files a complaint. That complaint doesn’t negate any other performance or employee actions. However, if you don’t have the documentation before the claim, acting after he files the complaint will look like illegal retaliation.
If you have documentation, you can continue along the disciplinary path, but do consider that the employee's poor performance is a result of harassment or discrimination, rather than an entirely separate situation.
How Do You Stop Retaliation?
Making a simple policy of “no retaliation” won’t solve all of your problems. (Of course, a policy never solves all problems.) You have to consider each situation carefully and on its own merits. Going back to Jane and John, how do you respond? If you determine John’s behavior wasn’t severe enough for punishment, yet Jane doesn’t wish to work with him anymore, how do you proceed?
If you transferred John to the less desirable shift, you are punishing him for something he didn’t do. Transferring Jane is retaliation as long as she had a sincere belief that John harassed her. Resolving such a situation can take serious negotiation and careful thought.
You may also need to sit down with Jane and explain why John’s behavior was not harassment, and that if she wishes to move to a different shift, you can do that, but otherwise, she still has to work with John. Explain to her that to transfer John when you have concluded that he did no wrong—is the wrong decision for the business.
You need to train your managers not to retaliate, and to report all protected complaints to HR. That will help you ensure that no retaliatory decisions happen and that you investigate all potential allegations.
The Bottom Line
Remember, if an employee sues you and you win on the facts, you can still lose on reported retaliation if you treated the complainant poorly. That’s why it’s critical to think through your actions before you take them and even consider discussing the right course of action with an employment law attorney.