Employees are protected under the law from facing retaliation in the workplace if they speak up or bring a complaint about an activity that is criminal or that violates employment laws. This can include “whistleblowing” about things like fraud or theft or even cooperating with an investigation. It can also include making a complaint about discrimination or harassment (against yourself or someone else) that’s prohibited by federal and/or state law.
Often, employers don’t do something as obvious as immediately terminating an employee who has spoken up or even filed a complaint. There are many other forms of retaliation that can derail a person’s goals for advancement or cause them to be so miserable in the workplace that they have no choice but to leave.
What retaliation can look like
To be considered retaliation, an employer’s action typically has to be “materially adverse.” Some examples include:
- Increased scrutiny of a person’s work, attendance or other behavior compared with that of other employees
- Reassignment to a less-desirable location or schedule
- Demotion or loss of supervisory responsibilities
- Verbal and/or physical abuse or harassment
- Threats involving a person’s immigration status
- Threats or actions against an employee’s family (whether they’re also employees or not)
- Unwarranted negative evaluations, reprimands or warnings
Often, employers will use these last tactics to try to build a case for terminating an employee. That’s sometimes referred to as “papering the file.”
It should be noted that an employee can’t always make a case for retaliation if they’ve experienced one or more of these things after reporting illegal activity. Every situation is different. That’s why it’s crucial to document what you’ve experienced, and it’s often wise to seek legal guidance.