What is Workplace Retaliation?

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  • Written By: K. Testa
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 22 September 2019
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Workplace retaliation occurs when an employer takes adverse action against a subordinate for exercising his or her employee rights. Laws regarding workplace rights vary by location. In the United States, for instance, there are a number of laws that specifically address workplace retaliation. In short, most of the laws that grant employee rights contain provisions that prohibit reprisals when employees assert those rights. To be considered retaliation, an employer’s action usually must have a negative effect on someone’s employment situation. This can be difficult to prove in some cases.

In the U.S., employees often face workplace retaliation for engaging in legally protected activities. It can consist of discrimination or other unfair actions against someone for reporting workplace violations, or for testifying in a legal proceeding about those violations. Some examples of retaliatory actions by an employer can include wrongful termination, demotion, or denial of a raise. Other activities might be more subtle, such as making changes in assignments or excluding the employee from a particular project. Frequently, this negative behavior results in a hostile working environment for employees.


Various U.S. laws outline workers’ rights and prohibit retaliation for exercising them. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), for example, U.S. employees have a right to a certain minimum wage, overtime pay, and safe working conditions. Furthermore, an employer cannot discriminate or take adverse action against an employee for expecting the employer to fulfill his obligations. In addition, workers are not supposed to face retaliation for reporting discrimination to authoritative bodies, such as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

In most places, employees also have a right to file legitimate workers compensation and unemployment claims without fear of reprisal. Moreover, employers cannot retaliate against their employees for joining or working with a labor union. In general, those same employees cannot be retaliated against by the union itself for not joining, for exercising their right to work, or for leaving the union.

There are several options available for addressing workplace retaliation. Many legal experts advise the employee to talk directly to his or her supervisor first. This could help clear up any potential misunderstandings and avoid unnecessary legal action against the employer. If this approach is unsuccessful, an employee might then file a complaint with the appropriate authorities. In many areas, there are whistleblower laws in place that aim to protect an employee who reports a wrongdoing by his or her employer.


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