Workplace Retaliation: How to Protect Yourself When Reporting Wrongdoing

Workplace retaliation can happen when an employee reports wrongdoing or unfair practices at their job. It occurs when an employer is punishing an employee when they stand up for their rights. Even though there are federal laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prevent this, it is very common in today’s workplaces. A 2017 study found that 75% of employees who spoke up about misconduct faced some form of retaliation.

Knowing your rights and taking proactive steps can empower you to speak up against workplace wrongdoing without fear. This article provides an overview of workplace retaliation and actionable tips to safeguard yourself from such acts.

Retaliation in the Workplace

Most federal laws contain provisions protecting employees from retaliation for engaging in “protected activity.” In fact, these provisions are a key part of laws that safeguard workplace rights and reporting misconduct.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is at the forefront of enforcing anti-retaliation laws at a federal level. Their guidance defines it as “punishing an employee for engaging in legally protected activity.” This covers a wide range of scenarios from reporting discrimination and harassment to requesting disability accommodations.

The Essence of Protected Activity

Protected activity encompasses actions like:

  • Filing a discrimination charge with the EEOC.
  • Voicing opposition to perceived unfair practices. 
  • Assisting in an investigation about harassment or discrimination.
  • Refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination.

Even things like requesting a reasonable accommodation for a disability, discussing pay equity with coworkers, or inquiring about FMLA benefits could be deemed as protected activity under EEOC laws. 

If an employer is fired from their job without any proper reason but only because they raised concerns in their workplace, the very first thing that they should do is to visit an attorney.  Consulting an attorney will be much better than filing a case on your own since they are more aware of the federal laws. There are more than a thousand corporate law firms in the USA. For employees in the Los Angeles region who got fired without a valid reason just after filing a complaint, it is a must to consider contacting an experienced Los Angeles wrongful termination lawyer to understand your rights and options. Legal expertise can prove invaluable. 

While the scope of protected conduct is far-reaching, it is also distinct from general employee discipline. There is a fine line between protected activity and standard performance management.

The Fine Line: EEO Activity vs. Employee Discipline

Engaging in EEO activity does not exempt an employee from discipline or discharge. Employers can still reprimand workers for poor performance or code of conduct breaches unrelated to EEO activity.

However, the discipline should be based on legitimate, unbiased reasons. In a case against Day & Zimmermann NPS Inc., the court found that revealing an employee’s discrimination complaint to coworkers was retaliation, despite the manager citing “maintaining transparency” as the reason.

The timing between the protected activity and adverse action is also key. A close sequence of events can imply reprisal, even if the employer cites performance issues as the motive. While employers can still discipline employees outside of protected activity, they must be able to demonstrate disciplinary rationale. Responsible managers also refrain from deterring employees from future protected acts.

Wrongful Termination as Retaliation

In some cases, wrongful termination can be a form of backlash for engaging in protected activity. For example:

  • Getting fired without any valid reason after filing a harassment complaint against a supervisor. This could be payback for raising your voice against unlawful behavior.
  • Getting laid off for poor performance issues shortly after requesting ADA accommodations for a disability from HR. The timing suggests the termination may be linked to asking for legal accommodations.
  • Being fired for absenteeism even though recent absences were for a medical disability covered by FMLA leave. It is unfair since the absences should have been protected.
  • Complaining about wage discrimination related to race or gender and then getting let go under dubious pretenses. The termination may be a reprisal for asserting civil rights.
  • Reporting safety issues or refusal to operate dangerous equipment, then being terminated for “insubordination.” This likely constitutes illegal punitive action for whistleblowing activities.
  • Supporting a union organizing drive and suddenly getting hit with unjust discipline or termination. The timing indicates retaliatory action for exercising labor rights.

If the sequence of events suggests your termination was spiteful payback for asserting your legal workplace rights, promptly consult an employment lawyer. They can assess if you have a wrongful termination lawsuit based on resentment after protected activity. Useful evidence includes documentation of performance reviews, absentee records, discipline reports, and emails related to the protected activity. 

Witness testimonies will also bolster the case. With the help of an experienced attorney, you can fight against retaliation and seek justice. Don’t delay in acting if you face wrongful termination as payback.

Best Practices for Employees

If you experience backlashing actions for reporting workplace wrongdoing, here are some tips:

  • Document everything: Keep a detailed log of events, including dates, times, witnesses and specifics of each incident.
  • Report promptly: Waste no time informing your supervisor, HR, compliance officer, or legal counsel. 
  • File a charge: Reach out to the EEOC or state fair employment agency to file a formal charge of retaliation. 
  • Consult support groups: Organizations like the National Whistleblower Center can provide guidance for reporting retaliation.
  • Review company policies: Know your rights and protections under company anti-retaliation policies.
  • Seek legal help: For complex cases, consult with an employment lawyer regarding litigation.

Equipped with this knowledge, you can take proactive steps to defend yourself from reprisal from employers. But many understandably still have pressing questions about handling this professionally.

Key Takeaways

  • Retaliation protections exist in most workplace laws, covering wide-ranging activities.
  • Differentiate between payback actions and legitimate discipline without unlawful motive.  
  • Recognize common retaliatory practices like intimidation, unfair demotion, or scrutiny.
  • Report promptly, document thoroughly, and consult legal resources to defend your rights.
  • Knowledge and preparation are power when combating unfair practices in the workplace.


Understanding proper protocols is key to securing protection from retaliatory practices. With greater awareness of rights and proactive action, speaking up against workplace wrongdoing does not need to come at the cost of retaliation.

The threat of retaliation should not deter employees from reporting wrongdoing. Arm yourself with information and resources so you can safely speak up against workplace misconduct. With greater awareness, you can help promote equitable, ethical work cultures.

FAQs on Workplace Retaliation

  1. What is the EEOC’s role in combating retaliation?

The EEOC investigates retaliation claims under federal anti-discrimination laws. If merited, they can file lawsuits against employers violating anti-retaliation provisions.

  1. How do you know if discipline at work is retaliation or just fair enforcement? 

Review the timing, record of performance appraisals, equitable policy enforcement, and nature of discipline. Seek legal counsel if the discipline correlates to your protected activity.

  1. What should you do if faced with retaliation?

Promptly file an EEOC charge, document incidents, notify HR and supervisors, consult support groups, and retain legal counsel. Follow company reporting procedures and secure evidence.

  1. Could wrongful termination be a form of unlawful retaliation?

Yes, termination without valid cause could potentially be retaliation if connected to protected activity like filing a discrimination complaint. Employees facing potentially retaliatory termination should consult an employment lawyer.

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