How to Prevent a Retaliation Claim

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Over the past several years, charges of retaliation filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have significantly increased, making retaliation a major legal risk that employers face. Here are several ways that employers can prevent retaliation.

Know what employment actions are considered "adverse."

An employee can sue for retaliation if they suffer a tangible, adverse employment action - such as loss of income or employment as a result of engaging in a protected activity. They must prove that there is a connection between their protected activity and the employment action they received. Examples of adverse employment actions could be a demotion, termination, or pay cut. A negative performance review may or may not be considered adverse depending on the circumstances.

Be aware that perception is reality when it comes to retaliation.

You may not intend to hurt an employee, but an action can still be perceived as retaliatory if an employee sees it as such. For example, reassigning or transferring an employee to another location, shift, or role or even separating employees from one another can be perceived as an adverse action if the action results in an outcome that is less desirable to the employee.

Address complaints promptly and respectfully.

Take complaints seriously and treat them with respect and care - they are indicators of dissatisfaction and usually precursors to a lawsuit. Start by establishing a policy against retaliation which communicates that your organization does not tolerate retaliation and explains the steps employees should take if they have complaints. Research complaints thoroughly and document the actions you take to address them.

Make and maintain a list of protections.

Create and maintain a list of all protections under law and distribute it to decision-makers, including supervisors and managers. These protections should include employees requesting FMLA, reasonable accommodations, and those employees in protected classes (race, national origin, religion, etc.). Make sure that decision-makers are aware of the types of activities which are protected under law.

Time your decisions accordingly.

Timing is one of the most important pieces of evidence that usually supports a retaliation claim. The longer the timeframe between the protected activity and adverse employment action, the more often courts have dismissed such claims. Refrain from taking adverse employment actions close to a complaint or protected activity.

Channel major employment decisions through HR.

Require a trained HR professional to be involved in any employment decisions, particularly those that negatively affect an employee. Conduct a thorough HR review before proceeding with a disciplinary action (i.e. warning, suspension, termination, etc.) for any employee who engages in a protected action and make sure that you have plenty of documentation to back up your decision.

Train and educate supervisors.

Supervisors can be major culprits of retaliatory decisions and it's important to make sure they are not making any decisions that could be unlawful. While they may feel so inclined to "get back" at an employee, the risks of doing so often far outweigh any benefit. Share specific examples of retaliation by supervisors, common scenarios, and procedures they must follow to avoid retaliation.

On a final note, when it comes to preventing retaliation in the workplace, it's best to consult case law, your attorney, and the EEOC's website for more guidance on the subject.

Please note that by providing you with research information that may be contained in this article, ERC is not providing a qualified legal opinion. As such, research information that ERC provides to its members should not be relied upon or considered a substitute for legal advice. The information that we provide is for general employer use and not necessarily for individual application.

Additional Resources

Supervisor & Manager Training: Employment Law

In this series, supervisors and managers learn about potential legal issues such as workplace discrimination and harassment, managing employee leaves of absence, and employee performance issues. Supervisory Series is offered in AM or PM sessions.