Retaliation sounds like something that belongs on the battlefield or in a game of sibling rivalry, not in the workplace. If you think that it is wrong for employers to retaliate against employees, the law agrees with you. Unfortunately, employers often punish employees for actions that do not deserve punishment, or even for acting in the best interest of the employer or of the public. Sometimes the purpose of the retaliation is not only to punish the employee who is the direct target of it, but also to intimidate other employees from exercising their rights or speaking out against misconduct in their workplace or industry. Complaints about employer retaliation often overlap with other types of disputes, such as those related to employment discrimination or breach of contract. However, even if retaliation is the only point of contention, you still have the right to seek legal remedies. The Houston hostile work environment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP can help you if your employer fired you or otherwise took adverse action against you after you exercised your legal rights.
When Employers Punish Employees for Exercising Their Rights
Many legal disputes between an employer and an employee begin when the employer takes adverse action against the employee. The following are examples of adverse actions in an employment context:
- Rejection of a job application
- Denial of a raise or promotion
- Assigning the employee to job duties, a work schedule, or a work location other than what the employee requested
- Harassment or hostile work environment
- Undue scrutiny of the employee’s job performance
- Unfairly negative performance reviews
- Termination of employment or non-renewal of the employee’s employment contract
- Giving negative references for the employee to other employers with whom the employee applies for a job
Sometimes employers have a valid reason for taking adverse action against the employee, for example, poor performance or documented misconduct on the part of the employee. If an employer takes adverse action against you unfairly, you have recourse to the legal system to resolve the dispute with your employer. For example, if you get fired from your job when you did not do anything wrong, you can explore your options with an employment lawyer, no matter what reason your employer gave for terminating your employment and no matter what you suspect the real reason was. If your employer fired you or took some other adverse action because of a protected characteristic, such as your race, sex, family status, or religion, it is employment discrimination. If your employer took the adverse action because you engaged in a protected activity, this is employer retaliation. Discrimination and retaliation are equally illegal in the workplace, and a Houston employment lawyer can help you in either case.
What is a Protected Activity?
Employer retaliation is when an employer penalizes an employee for engaging in a protected activity by taking adverse action against the employee. A protected action is something that the employee has the right to do without risk of employer retaliation, even if the employee’s action causes inconvenience or financial losses for the employer. If that sounds like a circular definition, it is easier to consider examples of protected activities. These are some examples of protected activities, as defined by federal and state laws:
- Voting in elections
- Filing a workers’ compensation claim after a work injury or a diagnosis of an occupational disease
- Requesting a leave of absence from work to undergo medical treatment or to care for a sick family member or a newborn or newly adopted or fostered child
- Requesting accommodations for a disability
- Reporting workplace safety hazards and violations of safety standards to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
- Filing a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
- Reporting illegal activity at your workplace to law enforcement
- Reporting any other violations of legal regulations to the relevant regulatory bodies
- Participating in an investigation into misconduct or crimes at your workplace
In other words, most protected activities relate either to the employee acting in pursuit of his or her own well-being or reporting workplace misconduct to outside authorities. In the case of requests for accommodations, a denial of the request does not, by itself, constitute retaliation. Employers have the right to refuse to provide accommodations that would involve a burdensome cost to the employer, but the employer should continue to negotiate with the employee about what kinds of accommodations the employer can afford to make. If the employer fires the employee simply because they made the request, then it is a clear case of employer retaliation.
How is Retaliation Different From a Hostile Work Environment?
Harassment, also known as a hostile work environment, is only one of the forms that employer retaliation can take. For example, if you report unsafe working conditions at your workplace to OSHA, and soon you start to see “snitches get stitches” signs pinned to bulletin boards around your workplace, that is a hostile work environment; it is also employer retaliation. If your coworkers post signs around your work environment that seem related to you, but it is not because of a protected activity in which you engaged, then it does not count as retaliation.
A hostile work environment is the most difficult type of employer retaliation to document. Other types of adverse actions, such as negative performance reviews and termination of employment, leave a much clearer paper trail. If the harassment is entirely verbal, as opposed to over email, it can be your word against your supervisor’s. An employment lawyer can help you navigate the difficult waters of showing evidence of a hostile work environment.
Contact HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP About Employer Retaliation
The Houston employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP, can help you if your employer took an adverse action against you in retaliation for your engagement in a legally protected activity. Contact the employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP in Houston, Texas, to set up a consultation.