Retaliation in the Workplace: Definition & Laws

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  • 0:01 Retaliation Is Illegal
  • 0:27 What Constitutes Retaliation?
  • 1:09 What's a Protected Activity?
  • 2:14 Who's a Covered Individual?
  • 2:48 Legal Consequences of…
  • 3:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Employers have a duty to stop illegal workplace discrimination and harassment, but sometimes they don't. Occasionally, they even exacerbate the problem. In this lesson, you'll learn about retaliation in the workplace. A short quiz follows the lesson.

Retaliation is Illegal

Laws that protect you against discrimination in employment and sexual harassment would not be much help if employers were permitted to retaliate against an employee who seeks protection under these laws. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), It is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against a covered individual because the individual engaged in a protected activity.

What Constitutes Retaliation?

So what exactly constitutes retaliation for purposes of employment law? Basically, any type of adverse action taken against an employee can constitute retaliation if the action is in response to a protected activity. The EEOC has identified the following actions as retaliatory:

  • Termination
  • Refusal to hire
  • Denial of promotion
  • Threats
  • Negative evaluations that are not justified
  • Negative references that are not justified
  • Increased surveillance or monitoring of the employee
  • Any other action that may prevent a reasonable person from pursuing her rights

What's a Protected Activity?

Not all adverse employment actions constitute retaliation. In order to be considered retaliation, the adverse action must have resulted from an employee engaging in a protected activity. According to the EEOC, a protected activity includes an employee opposing a discriminatory employment practice. Examples provided by the EEOC include:

  • Complaining about discrimination or sexual harassment
  • Threatening to file a charge of discrimination or sexual harassment with the EEOC
  • Protesting discrimination or sexual harassment
  • Refusing to obey a work order that would be reasonably considered discriminatory

The EEOC also notes that participating in an employment discrimination or sexual harassment proceeding is a protected activity. Examples of participating include filing a charge of discrimination or sexual harassment with the EEOC, cooperating with an investigation, or being a witness in an EEOC investigation or for a lawsuit.

Who's a Covered Individual?

Only covered individuals are protected from retaliation, but the definition of covered individual is pretty broad. According to the EEOC, an employee who engages in a protected activity by opposing unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment or who has participated in an administrative or judicial proceeding regarding discrimination or sexual harassment is a covered individual. Some covered individuals are protected because of their relationship to an employee engaged in a protected activity, such as a spouse.

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