A retaliatory discharge is a situation in which an employee is fired as punishment or retaliation for engaging in a legally protected activity such as filing an discrimination claim, whistleblowing about illegal activities at the company, or refusing to engage in discriminatory behavior even when the employer orders it. This is a form of wrongful termination. Companies which engage in retaliatory discharge may end up paying high fees in damages to the employee, providing compensation not just for lost wages but for other issues such as mental anguish.
In order to be considered a retaliatory discharge, there must be a clear link between the protected activity and a firing. Few employers are unwise enough to openly state that they are firing someone in retaliation, because they don't want to leave employees with neat evidence like a letter clearly stating that someone is being fired for filing an antidiscrimination claim. As a result, often some sleuthing is required to learn more about a firing.
When an employee engages in a protected activity and is fired shortly thereafter, an argument that it was a retaliatory discharge as possible. The argument can be strengthened with evidence that prior to the firing, the company did not appear to be preparing to fire the employee, and that the firing was too closely linked with the behavior to be a coincidence.
People who suspect that they may have been subjected to a retaliatory discharge can contact an attorney. The lawyer can review the situation, determine whether or not the person has a case, and take steps to help the person cover damages for lost work. Discharges can also harm a worker's reputation, making this an important part of the case as well; an accountant subjected to a retaliatory discharge, for example, might have trouble finding new clients because people might worry about why the accountant was let go.
Firing as punishment is not legal in most places, whether an employee is being fired for filing a disability claim, complaining about harassment or discrimination, refusing to engage in illegal activity, or whistleblowing. For this reason, companies are careful to document situations in which they are obliged to fire employees. In the event that an employee happens to be fired around the time of a protected activity, the company then has documentation showing that it had reason to fire the employee, such as numerous documents demonstrating that an employee was warned about a recurrent behavioral problem.