Retaliation Claims: Five Things Every HR Generalist Should Know*

March 14, 2008

The EEOC’s Report of Discrimination Charge filings notes that Retaliation claims rose 18% to a record high, doubling since 1992. There were 26,663 retaliation based charges filed in 2007 up from 22,555 the previous year. The trend might be explained, in part, by employees filing both a discrimination charge and a retaliation claim; increased awareness by employees, or employers mishandling employee internal complaints of discrimination.

Claims of retaliation take a very predictable path like the one recounted in a recent EEOC lawsuit. Vanguard Group settled a suit filed by the EEOC for a racial retaliation claim for a payment of $500,000.    The suit was based upon an employee’s complaint to management that he was being treated less favorably and discriminated against based on his race. Thereafter, the EEOC contended that the employee began to experience acts of retaliation, including unfavorable changes in his work conditions and assignments, from the managers he accused of race discrimination. The EEOC alleged that this pattern of retaliation resulted in the employee’s termination. The following may help HR Generalist avoid mishandling internal complaints.

  1. What is Unlawful Retaliation?

An employer may not fire, demote, harass or otherwise "retaliate" against an individual for filing a charge of discrimination, participating in a discrimination proceeding, or otherwise opposing discrimination. The same laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, and disability, as well as wage differences between men and women performing substantially equal work, also prohibit retaliation against individuals who oppose unlawful discrimination or participate in an employment discrimination proceeding. Retaliation occurs when an employer, employment agency, or labor organization takes an adverse action against a covered individual because he or she engaged in a protected activity.

  1. What is “Adverse Action” by an Employer?

An adverse action is an action taken to try to keep someone from opposing a discriminatory practice, or from participating in an employment discrimination proceeding. According to the EEOC, examples of adverse actions include:

  • Employment actions such as termination, refusal to hire, and denial of promotion;
  • Other actions affecting employment such as threats, unjustified negative evaluations, unjustified negative references, or increased surveillance; and
  • Any other action such as an assault or unfounded civil or criminal charge that is likely to deter reasonable people from pursuing their rights.

On the other hand, the EEOC states that adverse actions do not include petty slights and annoyances, such as stray negative comments in an otherwise positive or neutral evaluation, "snubbing" a colleague, or negative comments that are justified by an employee’s poor work performance or history.

  1. What is “Protected Activity” by an Employee?

Protected activity includes either opposing a practice reasonably believed to be unlawful discrimination or participating in a discrimination procedure. 

Opposition is informing an employer that you believe that he/she is engaging in prohibited discrimination. Opposition is protected from retaliation as long as it is based on a reasonable, good-faith belief that the complained of practice violates anti-discrimination law; and the manner of the opposition is reasonable.  The EEOC cited examples of protected opposition to include:

  • Complaining to anyone about alleged discrimination against oneself or others;
  • Threatening to file a charge of discrimination;
  • Picketing in opposition to discrimination; or
  • Refusing to obey an order reasonably believed to be discriminatory.

According to the EEOC, examples of activities that are NOT protected opposition include:

  • Actions that interfere with job performance so as to render the employee ineffective; or
  • Unlawful activities such as acts or threats of violence. 

Participation means taking part in an employment discrimination proceeding. Participation is a protected activity even if the proceeding involved claims that ultimately were found to be invalid. Examples of participation include:

  • Filing a charge of employment discrimination;
  • Cooperating with an internal investigation of alleged discriminatory practices; or
  • Serving as a witness in an EEO investigation or litigation.
  • A protected activity can also include requesting a reasonable accommodation based on religion or disability.
  1. Promptly Investigate Comments and Complaints Concerning Discrimination

Some HR action should be taken on all communications from employees that could later be “characterized” as either opposition or participation. At a minimum, get the facts underlying a comment about “unfairness” or “discrimination”. Obviously, you can spend your entire workday chasing down spurious remarks. You can circumvent a lot of problems merely by developing a practice of asking “what do you mean when you say it’s discriminatory?” Not taking complaints or comments seriously can be costly.

  1. Monitor Supervisors for Adverse Actions following an Employee Complaint

I would wager that most acts of “retaliation” go unnoticed on HR’s radar screen because no one is actively monitoring the situation. If someone has complained about discrimination by a supervisor, HR should follow up informally with the employee to make sure that there is no real or perceived retaliation. 

* Not meant to be exhaustive.