Subtle Forms of Workplace Retaliation

Workplace Retaliation
Photo by Christina Morillo / Pexels

When people think of workplace retaliation, they probably think of some clear-cut examples. An employee rejects their boss’ sexual advances and gets fired. An employee divulges they are pregnant and they are demoted. These are some very obvious examples of retaliation that would be easy to prove in a lawsuit. But what about more subtle forms of workplace retaliation? How can those be identified and addressed?

Retaliation is defined as any adverse action taken against an employee in response to a protected activity. Protected activities include things like filing a complaint of discrimination, whistleblowing, or exercising workplace rights.

Retaliation can take many forms, both overt and subtle. Overt retaliation is easy to spot, as mentioned above. Subtle retaliation can be more difficult to identify, but it can be just as damaging. It’s important that all employees understand their rights in the workplace and know how to identify illegal behavior.

Examples of Subtle Retaliation

Retaliation in the workplace can happen from a supervisor, manager, or even a colleague.

Below are some examples of retaliation that you may not even realize are illegal. Keep in mind that these behaviors are only categorized as retaliation if they occur in response to a protected activity, like reporting an unsafe work environment.

  • Giving an employee less desirable assignments or projects. This could include giving the employee the worst shifts, the least challenging work, or the most boring projects.
  • Withholding important information or resources from the employee. This could include denying the employee access to training, tools, or information they need to do their job.
  • Isolating the employee from their colleagues. This could involve excluding the employee from meetings, social events, or other work-related activities.
  • Giving the employee the silent treatment. This could involve refusing to speak to the employee, avoiding eye contact, or giving them the cold shoulder.
  • Spreading rumors about the employee. This could involve making false or negative statements about the employee to their colleagues, supervisors, or customers.
  • Giving the employee negative performance reviews. This could involve giving the employee unfair or inaccurate ratings on their performance reviews.
  • Denying the employee promotions or raises. This could involve denying the employee opportunities for advancement or refusing to give them a raise.

These are just a few examples of subtle forms of retaliation. It is important to remember that retaliation can take many different forms, and it is not always easy to identify. If you believe that you are being retaliated against, it is important to document the incidents and report them to your supervisor or human resources department.

Retaliation in the News

Unfortunately, workplace retaliation cases are in the news fairly often. In September 2023, Tesla was sued by the EEOC for racial harassment and retaliation. Black employees were allegedly experiencing extremely racist harassment at work, and employees who reported the behavior were retaliated against. In this case, retaliation took the form of terminations, transfers, and changes in job duties. Once these issues at Tesla came to the EEOC’s attention, they began an investigation into these violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits racial harassment. This law also protects employees who report harassment from retaliation.

Just a month before, mushroom farm employees in Washington state also brought discrimination and retaliation to light. The farm’s employees, who were mostly women, started getting replaced by foreign male workers who were willing to be paid less and work more. The farm accomplished this by increasing hourly quotas so they had a reason to write up and fire the female workers. Others were let go for calling in sick or needing shorter shifts because they had children at home. This resulted in a lawsuit and a $3.4 million fine to be paid by the mushroom farms.

In addition, the workers tried to organize a union to address the poor working conditions. When employees spoke up about the working conditions, managers at the farms retaliated by threatening people’s jobs and even assaulting a worker. These are very clear forms of retaliation. Employees are legally allowed to report unsafe working conditions, and should not have their jobs or safety threatened for doing so.

Effects of Retaliation

When an employee is retaliated against at work, it can affect many aspects of their life. Naturally, it affects their job, such as being isolated from colleagues or having their responsibilities changed. However, workplace retaliation can also affect an employee’s well-being and mental health. It can lead to stress and anxiety because the employee is in constant fear of further retaliation or losing their job. Employees can also feel hopeless and alone if the retaliation is ongoing, which can then lead to depression. Decreases in self-esteem and self-worth can also occur, with employees losing confidence in themselves. 

In addition to the mental health effects of retaliation, employees can experience legal disputes, financial consequences, and even physical health effects from the stress.

How to Handle Retaliation in the Workplace

If you believe you are being retaliated against at your place of work, follow the steps below to protect your rights.

  • Stay calm and professional. Do not retaliate in kind. This will only make the situation worse.
  • Document everything. Keep a record of the incidents, including the dates, times, and details. This will help you if you need to file a complaint or lawsuit.
  • Report the retaliation to your supervisor or human resources department. This is the first step in addressing the issue.
  • File a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is a federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws.
  • Seek legal advice. A workplace retaliation attorney can help you understand your rights and options.

It is important to remember that retaliation of any kind is illegal in the United States. If you are retaliated against, you may be able to file a lawsuit against your employer. If you are experiencing any type of retaliation, no matter how subtle, know that you are not alone. There are resources available to help you hold your employer accountable.

⸻ Author Bio ⸻

Sharon Feldman is a legal and safety writer based in San Diego. With a focus on wellness in the workplace, she believes in equal rights for all employees. When not writing, Sharon can be found at the beach with her dog Noodles.

The content published on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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