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Workplace retaliation is often confused for harassment, a hostile workplace or revenge. Instead, it is a form of punishment to make an employee afraid to file a complaint or engage in otherwise protected activities in the workplace, such as filing a worker’s compensation claim, being a witness in a legal issue or answering questions during an employer investigation.

Such a distinction is important on the legal level. Asserting one’s rights to report discrimination, harassment, or dangerous or unethical behavior in the workplace is protected by whistleblower or anti-retaliation statues even if the complaint is not successful. These statutes are enforced by the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

An employer engaging in negative, materially adverse employment action for whistleblowing or other protected activity is workplace retaliation. Some examples are an employee being demoted, receiving a decrease or withholding of wages, receiving less hours, or being terminated or fired. Another example is an employee being forced to quit due to unbearable working conditions, known as constructive discharge, after attempting to bring an issue to the employer’s attention.

Employers can terminate employees for any reason and at any time without notice, and they do not have to claim or disclose any reason as covered under the at-will employment contract. However, employers cannot terminate employees for reasons that violate federal, state or local anti-discrimination laws, such as gender, religious beliefs, national origin, race, medical condition, disability or pregnancy. Employers also cannot fire employees for reasons that violate public policy, such as committing illegal acts, or that violate the employment or union contract.

Other examples of wrongful termination are when the employment contract requires a cause for termination and the employee is not given one, or the employer lies about the reason for termination to protect themselves against discriminatory animus in spite of evidence for it. If a worker has concerns about their employer committing negative action against them as a form of workplace retaliation, an employment law attorney may help.