In this episode of the Employee Survival Guide®, Mark discusses the law of retaliation discrimination in a thoughtful and nonlegalist way. Mark will guide you through which actions are illegal and which are not. He will help you gain a better understanding of retaliation discrimination and how to prove it through self advocacy at work and by using an employment attorney.
This episode was written by Chris Avcollie, edited by Matt Zako, and produced by Mark Carey.
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Hey, it's Mark here and welcome to the next edition of the Employee Survival Guide, where I tell you what your employer does not want you to know about and a lot more. Today we're gonna be talking about the Law of Retaliation at work, blind justice in the workplace. In the ancient world, the law of quote, An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and quote, is the Law of Retaliation. And it's embodied in the principle of reciprocal justice for injuries or damages. While we associate this principle with a brutal or severe concept of justice, the Law of Retaliation was actually a progressive advance, in that it introduced the concept that the punishment should fit the crime or the harm done. This was preferable to the even more ancient principle of, quote, make one mistake lose your entire head and quote, which ruled the even more ancient world. To our modern sensibilities both concepts seem draconian. In the American workplace, these most ancient concepts of retribution, are both alive and well. The practice of vicious and unbalanced workplace retaliation by employers or co workers, for the actual or perceived conduct of employees is a daily reality. According to the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to retaliation is the quote, most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in the federal sector, and the most common discrimination finding in the federal sector cases and quote, some data suggests approximately four to 5% of all complaints filed with the EEOC are retaliation claims. Some employees report incidents of retaliation, but most are too frightened to do so. So how do we deal with the everyday injustice that is so pervasive and insidious, legal, versus illegal retaliation? As practicing employment attorneys, we hear firsthand about incidence of workplace retaliation so often, they seem ubiquitous. Sometimes it seems as if there is an unspoken law requiring employers to seek harsh retribution for a host of common workplace behaviors and situations. When someone is reporting an incident of retaliation. The first thing I need to determine is whether the retaliation is legal or illegal. Yes, there is, in fact a category of retaliatory conduct that is perfectly legal, it should not be legal in any situation. In my opinion, it should not be legal in any situation, but the law as usual is of several centuries behind the social revelant relevance curve. Some retaliation, however, is clearly illegal. Now, and therefore, actionable. Broadly, retaliation is defined as, quote The action of harming someone because they have harmed oneself, revenge and thus, in the workplace, any harmful action taken against an employee because the employee committed an actual or perceived harm is retaliation. For example, if an employee complaints to the supervisor about sexual harassment by a co worker, and the employer responds by transferring the complaining employee to a shift, which is less desirable, and does not provide the same opportunities for overtime, that is retaliation. Likewise, if an employee complains about the supervisors tendency to talk too much about safety issues at a staff meeting, and the supervisor overhears and punishes the complaining employee by making the same that undesirable shift transfer, that also is retaliation. And the examples above, only one of the two scenarios constitutes illegal retaliation, ie retaliation that is prohibited by law and thus legally actionable. The employee who is punished for reporting sexual harassment has a valid claim for retaliation, while the employee who found safety training to be unbearably boring does not. Thus retaliation is illegal in the workplace when an employer takes an adverse action against an employee for engaging in or exercising rights that are protected under the law. Since Title Seven of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other laws protecting employees right to report sexual harassment, the adverse action is illegal in that case, because there is no law that protects an employee's right to complain about boring training classes. The second example is not illegal retaliation. That's the motivation for retaliation is key is very important in assessing a retaliation complaint to understand what the action was that triggered the retaliation. It's what happened before the retaliation that matters most. While the reason or inciting action for the retaliation is important, it actually makes no difference whether the reason for the initial complaint by the employee was legit or not. In other words, if the employee is punished for reporting what the she thinks is illegal race discrimination, retaliation is illegal, even if no actual illegal race discrimination was ever committed by the employer. Thus, if the employee reports a discriminatory incident and the employer disciplines or fires the employee. In response, the employee nevertheless has a retaliation case. It does not matter that no discrimination occurred, where the law protects an employee's right to complain, help others to complain or to report some act of misconduct, either within or outside the organization. That action is regarded as, quote, protected activity, and quote, for example, the EEO laws prohibit punishing Java applicants or employees for asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination, including harassment. It is therefore a legal retaliation to punish an employee for engaging in such protected activities. For example, isn't it is unlawful to retaliate against applicants or employees for the following different scenarios, number one, filing or being a witness to an EEOC charge complaint investigation or lawsuit to reporting ethical violations. Three communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination, including harassment. Number four, answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged harassment. Five, refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination. Six, refusing to commit illegal acts despite your employer's direction or request to do so. Seven, requesting or taking a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act eight whistleblowing or officially reporting against your employer in an effort to stop illegal or unsafe practices. Number nine, filing for workman's compensation benefits 10, resisting sexual advances or intervening to protect others from those advances 11 requesting a combination of a disability or for religious practice and 12 Asking the employer managers or coworkers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages. It is important to understand that an employee does not have to formally object to the misconduct or discrimination to engage in valid protected activity. It can be enough to raise the issue of discrimination or harassment in any way that calls into the employers calls the employers attention. As long as the employer is on notice of the unlawful conduct the reporting employees protected from retaliation. The nature of the problem. While the psychology of a retaliation scenario seems clear and simple, ie quote you did something I didn't like so I'm going to do something you didn't like. The institutional dynamics involved are more complex. The aspect that makes retaliation illegal is not the revenge part of it all. The law is not concerned with whether there was some act of vengeance. The laws against certain forms of workplace retaliation are intended to combat the aspect of fear created by the retaliatory action. The idea is if the workers are too afraid to report misconduct, the law in question cannot be enforced. In a recent blog article, we address some sources of fear in the workplace. fear of retaliation by one's employer was one of the primary sources of workplace fear. Fear is also is the real point of retaliation, not revenge. Many employees refuse to protect their rights at work for fear of retaliation. This is really what the retaliatory employer wants. Retaliation is intended to create fears of getting fired, demoted to a lower paying position, or move to an intolerable work environment. These and other fears typically underlie an employee's reluctance to stand up for the rights. The truth is that where the rights you are asserting are protected by law, retaliation is illegal. Retaliation is defined by many courts by its fear causing tendencies, and a negative action taken by an employer which is severe enough that it might deter a reasonable employee from exercising their legal rights is likely sufficient to support a legal claim of retaliation. While a protected activity must precede the retaliatory act to make it legally actionable. The primary concern is whether the adverse action against the employee would tend to discourage others from making similar complaints. While the motive for the retaliatory act matters. It is not the subjective motive of the employer, but the effect the effect the retaliatory actions would have on a reasonable employee similarly situated to the complaining employee that matters the most various forms of retaliation. While most retaliation cases follow a familiar pattern. The forms that retaliation can take are numerous. Well, some methods of retaliation like termination are obvious. Many are more subtle, and some are even difficult to classify as retaliation at all. Some common examples of workplace retaliation our number one, demotion, losing a position, title, status, job duties or seniority privileges to termination, being separated invalid monetarily from the job. Three abuse. Employer engages in verbal or physical abuse or verbal insults for increased scrutiny, unusual and unwarranted examination of the employees, job duties, etc. Five punitive assignments being sent to perform undesirable tasks or assigning too much work from one employee. Six, changing conditions, moving the employees work situation, or changing the employers employee schedule to create a hardship seven performance targeting unwanted performance criticism including unjustified performance improvement plans not imposed on other non complaining employees, eight salary reductions, receiving a cut and pay or reducing the regularly scheduled hours. Exclusion is number nine, intentionally left out of meetings, training sessions or social activities 10 False discipline being identified as committing misconduct or violating policies which are not enforced against others suspensions without good reason. 11 threats threaten to make or actually make reports to authorities such as reporting employee to an immigration agency or police 12 defamation, publishing false negative information about the employee and 13/3 party acts take some action against friends or family members of the employee who may work at the company. As you can see, there are many ways that an employer can retaliate against an employee. Essentially an employer action that has negative consequences for the employee can potentially be actual retaliation. If the negative action is severe enough that it might deter a reasonable employee from exercising their legal rights. It's probably illegal retaliation. Now, how do we prove workplace retaliation? While identifying a retaliatory scenario seems simple enough, proving a claim of illegal retaliation can be anything but in almost every case, the retaliating employer will make some attempt to justify its actions by stating a legitimate, non retaliatory reason for the adverse action it took against the employee. Often the most challenging part of the case is proving that the actions taken by the employer were in fact, illegitimate and based on retaliation, to prove a case where illegal retaliation for basic elements must generally be proven. First, the employee has to prove that they took part in a legally protected activity. As explained above, all retaliation is not illegal. Only retaliation that follows a legally protected activity is illegal. An employee must demonstrate they made internal within a company or organization when sometimes external, outside the company organization, complaints and in order to claim actual retaliation. Next, the employee has to prove that the employer took adverse action against them. Here the employee must document or be able to prove that the employer did something to them to affect the terms and conditions of their job. Where termination is the retaliatory action, that proof is fairly easy to come by. However, when the employer retaliates in a more subtle way, such as by berating or humiliating the employee in front of coworkers, the employee must document the incident and enlist the aid of witnesses to prove the retaliation. Third, the employee must prove that the employers retaliation was in response to the protected activity. This element often involves proving that the employers profit legitimate reason for the retaliatory action was in fact faults are pretextual. This can be tricky, where the employer has done a good job of documenting performance and disciplinary issues against the employee in the past, however, where the employer has a weak documentation basis to support the legitimacy of its actions, a court can often will infer that the actions were in fact retaliatory. Finally, the employee must show that they suffered some loss or damage as a result of the retaliation, such as lost wages or benefits. As with most workplace conflicts, the ability to make a credible claim often comes down to a battle of the documents. Documentation is a key to success in proving any misconduct at work, most especially workplace retaliation. The ability to prove that a retaliatory action took place often depends on the quality of the employee's documentation. As compared to the employers documentation. It is important to have documentation to show a link between the complaint or other behavior that caused the retaliation and the employer's retaliatory actions. It is a course advisable to document the specifics of the retaliatory behavior, if the retaliation is a transfer to an undesirable shift, document all the facts related to the transfer. have others been transferred the same shift in recent months, who was transferred. And was that also a punishment? Did the employer have to move someone out of that? shift to make room for the reporting employee had that change been requested by the other worker? What is specifically undesirable about that that shift. It is also important to document certain past information. If the employer is claiming that the poor performance is the reason for the adverse employment action, a record of prior good performance such as emails or letters praising the employee's work or positive performance, evaluations and bonuses awarded to you provide excellent evidence to show that the alleged performance issue is simply a pretext for illegal retaliation. If a good performer is suddenly becomes quote unquote poor, after a complaint of harassment, the evidence will often be very clear. The timing of the relevant events is also a big factor. As in the example, if the retaliatory actions begin immediately after the employer learns of the protected activity, the link between the two will be evident. Another set of facts that require careful documentation are the facts surrounding the employers explanation for the retaliatory acts, ask probing questions about why the actions are being taken and document the employers actions carefully. Often, the employer will give a weak or nonsensical reason when an action is truly retaliatory. If the employer tries to change the explanation for the retaliation later, perhaps after lawyers have been become involved, that documentation of the weak reason they gave at first will be very important evidence of pretext trying to get the reasons for any actions you suspect might be retaliatory in writing, if only by email or memo, and you yourself can send the email to your boss to document it for yourself. You don't have to wait for the boss to document to you. When the employer will not put things in writing. take detailed notes, date them, and either email them to yourself. Be sure to document the basis for the initial complaint or report a protected activity, even if there was no actual discrimination or misconduct document the good faith basis for the complaint. Always record the names and contact information for any potential witnesses, including coworkers, vendors, or customers where appropriate. Further documentation for the actual complaint you made and the names of the persons to whom you complain will be important as well. Finally, document the losses or damages you suffered as a result of the employers retaliatory conduct collecting pay stubs. Income statements, benefit documents will help prove the damages incurred from loss of wages, or overtime as a result of the retaliation. Evidence of medical treatment for any conditions that may have been caused by the by the retaliation will also be important. Now, context matters most. In the landmark harassment case of on Cal versus sundowner offshore services. In 1998, the United States Supreme Court pointed out that not every workplace problem is a matter of harassment or retaliation. Whether or not a workplace event is actual depends upon the constellation of surrounding circumstances, expectations and relationships. In retaliation cases, our courts look at the context and the particular circumstances relevant to each situation to determine whether the allege retaliatory action had or was likely to have a chilling effect on employee reports of illegal conduct. And then finally, in closing, I after many, many years of doing this, I have seen retaliation cases. And the good ones always get settled, they pop out and they smell of like rotting fish, it's just you just can see the cause effect in the absence of any internal legal counsel trying to manage them. And look for the close of the proximity of time between the complaint being made internally to a manager or to HR wherever and how quickly the events that the adverse adverse action that happens afterwards. The longer that nexus of time, stretching into 1234 or five months, the more likely it is the employer can squeeze into it or kind of develop a fact based although false narrative that you have performance problems after the complaint. Those cases really don't ever survive summary judgment in front of a court and are likely to settle. So take these thoughts into consideration when you're experiencing retaliation and follow them to the letter if you may, and you might discover that you have an actual claim that you can bring to an attorney and employment attorney. Hope you find these comments and information helpful. Hope you enjoyed this week's episode of the Employee Survival Guide. Please rate us if you can review us to help others find us and have a great week. Be good