It’s an unfortunate fact that a significant number of workplaces harbor employees who engage in unethical, abusive, and/or hostile conduct, like sexual harassment. Fortunately, workers personally victimized by or unwilling to condone this sort of misbehavior may seek justice by reporting illegal workplace behavior to the relevant authorities.
That’s the right thing to do—but it’s also a potentially dangerous thing to do. Employees who choose this option can easily damage their professional relationship with their bosses and supervisors, who may decide to “punish” a worker for their perceived disloyalty. Often this punishment takes the form of job termination, but there are other tactics as well, such as demotion or unwarranted negative evaluations.
Retribution of this nature is illegal, however. It’s a practice known as workplace retaliation, and if you believe you have been mistreated by your superiors due to your complaint(s) about misconduct at the company, you should become aware of your rights and possible avenues of redress provided by the law.
What Are Protected Activities?
As defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers are legally protected from workplace retaliation only if they have engaged in “protected activities.” These include the following:
- Refusing to follow a supervisor’s order to carry out an illegal or discriminatory act.
- Complaining to others about the company’s allegedly discriminatory practices, either those aimed at oneself or another party.
- Filing an official discrimination complaint with the EEOC.
- Participating in an official investigation into the company’s discriminatory practices.
- Requesting reasonable workplace accommodations as provided by law (e.g., the Americans with Disabilities Act).
It’s worth pointing out that the law provides these protections to employees so long as they are acting in good faith. This means that they cannot be subjected to retaliation even if the basis of the complaint is later judged to fall below the standard required to prove illegal behavior.
For instance, an employee who is fired for filing a sexual harassment complaint can sue under retaliation laws even if it is determined that the incident(s) that triggered the complaint did not qualify as harassment under the legal definition. If the complaint had a reasonable basis—i.e., the employee wasn’t merely lying outright for malicious reasons—then the retaliation laws remain in effect.
Who Is Protected?
An employee who engages in protected activities can benefit from workplace retaliation laws. These laws also extend to those closely associated with a party who engages in protected activities, such as a co-worker who aided an employee in preparing a discrimination claim.
What Workplace Retaliation Isn’t
Workplace retaliation laws are intended to protect workers from unjustified loss of employment, including denial of opportunities for advancement. They do not cover relatively minor phenomena such as “coldness” toward an employee who has initiated a discrimination claim.
In addition, employees are required to exercise sound judgment when engaging in protected activities—it is one thing to calmly inform a supervisor about discriminatory activities, and quite another to threaten a co-worker with violence.
There are some gray areas involved with retaliation law. Therefore, it’s best to have experienced legal counsel in your corner. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Barrett & Farahany can give you the assistance you need.
Contact us today to speak with an attorney!