Employers can penalize or reprimand their workers for countless reasons. People who underperform, break the rules or put other workers in danger can face a range of consequences, from demotion to termination.

However, there are situations in which adverse action against an employee is illegal. Such is the case when an employer’s decisions are retaliatory.

Examples of retaliation

Retaliatory actions punish employees who participate in activities in which they are legally entitled to engage. Some examples of what this could look like include:

  • Firing a worker for requesting medical leave
  • Demoting someone for reporting unsafe work conditions
  • Refusing to promote someone who filed a complaint about sexual harassment
  • Harassing an employee who refuses to do something illegal
  • Giving someone undesirable tasks or schedules for resisting sexual advances
  • Cutting pay for someone who requested a disability accommodation

These scenarios can be grounds for a retaliation claim. 

Why these cases can get complicated

Keep in mind that just because an employer fires or otherwise reprimands someone does not make it retaliation. Individuals must show the following elements:

  • They participated in a protected activity or opposed an illegal activity
  • Their employer punished them
  • The punishment was in response to the participatory or oppositional activity

However, employers are not always honest about the reasons behind their decisions to demote, fire or otherwise punish employees. Thus, it can take legal guidance and a thorough investigation into a situation to determine whether retaliation occurred.

It can also be wise to retain documentation related to possible retaliation. Such records can include voicemails or emails, performance reviews and copies of any complaints an employee filed. This information can confirm timing, intention and context, which can be vital in building a legal claim against an employer.

Retaliation is illegal, but it can and does happen. Knowing what it looks like can help employees protect themselves and their rights should it occur.

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