In an ideal world, every workplace would be a haven of respect and fairness. However, reality sometimes falls short of the ideal, and many people have faced racial harassment at work. When employees muster the courage to report such misconduct, they have to ask themselves: what if my employer retaliates against me?
Retaliation can be a potent silencer, discouraging victims from seeking justice. Understanding your legal rights and what steps to take in the face of retaliation is crucial to protecting your own rights and all of society.
Understanding Your Legal Rights
Employees and job applicants have legal rights under federal and state laws to be free from discrimination and retaliation. Employers are prohibited from engaging in adverse actions against employees for participating in protected activities. If you face such a situation, understanding your legal rights is the first step towards seeking justice.
Workplace retaliation can be subtle and insidious, but by knowing what qualifies as retaliation, recognizing the signs, and understanding the laws that protect you, you can more effectively stand up for your rights. Remember, you have the right to work in an environment free from discrimination and retaliation.
What Qualifies As Harassment and Retaliation?
Racial harassment, a serious form of employment discrimination, is any unwelcome conduct targeted at an individual based on their race, color, or national origin. Such behavior can include, but is not limited to, racial slurs, offensive or derogatory remarks, or displaying racially offensive symbols. Harassment becomes unlawful when the offensive conduct is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, or when it results in an adverse employment action.
Importantly, it’s not just harassment from an employer that can lead to a valid discrimination complaint; offensive conduct from co-workers, customers, or anyone else in the workplace can also lead to liability for employers if they do not take adequate steps to prevent and rectify the situation.
Retaliation refers to any adverse action an employer takes against an employee as a result of the employee engaging in a protected activity, such as reporting discrimination or participating in a discrimination proceeding. Employer retaliation can take many forms, including termination, demotion, reassignment to a less desirable position or location, or even making the work environment intentionally uncomfortable for the employee.
It’s important to understand that even if the original complaint of racial discrimination does not turn out to be valid, retaliation occurs if the employer punishes the employee, even just for filing a good faith complaint.
10 Signs of Retaliation in the Workplace
- Sudden negative change in job duties or conditions. This can include changes in shifts, job responsibilities, sick leave arrangements, or even office location, which seem to have no basis other than the discrimination complaint.
- Unjustified disciplinary action or performance reviews. If the employer suddenly starts criticizing your work, imposes penalties after you’ve filed a complaint, or unjustly adjusts your personnel file to reflect poor performance, this could be a sign of retaliation.
- Increased scrutiny. If you find your actions being excessively monitored or scrutinized more than other employees, this could be a possible violation of the law.
- Exclusion. If you’re systematically excluded from meetings, projects, or events, it could be a retaliatory act.
- Salary reductions or denial of raises. If your pay is suddenly cut or your expected raise is denied without a valid reason, this could be a sign of retaliation.
- Termination or threats of termination. If your employer threatens to fire you or actually terminates your employment after a complaint, it could be retaliation.
- Reassignment to a less desirable role or location. If you are suddenly assigned to less desirable duties or a different location, this might be a form of retaliation.
- Hostility. Increased hostility from your employer or co-workers following a complaint can be a sign of retaliation.
- Denial of opportunities. If your career progression is deliberately stalled, or you are denied training or promotion opportunities following your complaint, it might be a sign of retaliation.
- Retaliation against a family member. If a family member who works for the same employer is negatively affected following your complaint, it could be considered retaliation.
How to Prove Retaliation
Proving a violation can often be challenging, as it requires establishing a clear connection between the protected activity (such as filing a discrimination complaint) and the adverse employment action that followed. To successfully demonstrate a violation of laws prohibiting adverse actions, you must show the following:
Engagement in a Protected Activity
You filed a complaint of racial harassment or discrimination, participated in an investigation, or opposed discriminatory practices, making the action a protected activity under the law.
You must be able to show that your employer was actually aware that you engaged in the protected activity.
Adverse Action by the Employer
Your employer took an adverse action against you at some point after learning that you engaged in the protected behavior. The action could be a demotion, termination, reassignment to a less desirable position, or creating a hostile work environment.
A connection must be established between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. This could be shown through timing (e.g., the adverse action occurred shortly after the complaint was filed), or through evidence that the employer was aware of the protected activity and that the employee was treated less favorably than others who did not engage in the protected activity.
File a Complaint
You must file your retaliation complaint within the timeline set by the law, which can vary depending on whether you are filing with a state or federal agency.
It’s crucial to gather as much evidence as possible when making a retaliation claim. This could include emails, text messages, performance reviews, testimonies from co-workers, and any other documents that could help to substantiate your claim.
What Do the Terms “Adverse Activity” and “Protected Activity Mean”?
An adverse activity, also known as an adverse action or adverse employment action, refers to any negative action taken by an employer that affects the terms, conditions, or benefits of the employee’s job. Adverse actions could include firing or demoting the employee, reducing their salary, altering their job duties, changing their work schedule, or relocating their job to a less desirable location. In a retaliation claim, an adverse action is an important element that must be proven to establish that employer retaliation has occurred.
Protected activities, as defined by federal and state laws, include actions taken by employees to oppose, report, or help in the investigation of employment discrimination, such as racial harassment. These could include activities like filing a discrimination complaint, participating in a discrimination proceeding, opposing discriminatory practices, or any other act of resistance against discrimination.
Participation in a protected activity provides an employee certain rights and safeguards under the law, such as those overseen by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It’s important to remember that these protections apply regardless of whether the original discrimination complaint is ultimately found to be valid or not, as long as the discrimination complaint was made in good faith.
Steps to Take if Your Employer Has Retaliated Against You
Keep a detailed record of all actions, incidents, and conversations related to your complaint and the subsequent retaliation. Include dates, times, locations, and any witnesses if possible.
If you feel safe to do so, communicate your concerns directly to your employer or HR department, stating that you believe you are being retaliated against for your protected activity. If your employer doesn’t address your concerns, you may need to file a retaliation complaint with the appropriate agency, such as the EEOC or the Missouri state labor commissioner.
Seek advice from an attorney specializing in employment law. They can guide you through the process and help you understand your legal rights.
What Laws Prohibit Retaliation and Harassment?
Retaliation is prohibited under several federal laws, including, but not limited to, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). These laws enforced by the EEOC provide comprehensive protections to employees and job applicants who engage in protected activities.
Under these laws, it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an individual for filing a discrimination complaint, participating in an investigation, or opposing discriminatory practices. The laws cover employers with 15 or more employees (20 in the case of age discrimination), labor organizations, employment agencies, and federal government employers.
Federal laws also strictly prohibit workplace harassment, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Each of these laws makes it illegal to harass an employee or job applicant based on protected characteristics such as race, color, national origin, sex, age (over 40), or disability. Title VII also extends this protection to harassment based on an individual’s religion.
Harassment becomes unlawful when enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Just as federal law does, the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibits retaliation for opposing discrimination or for filing a complaint alleging discrimination. It applies to employers with six or more employees, including state and local governments. Additionally, it covers employment agencies, labor organizations, and public accommodations.
The MHRA allows employees to file a retaliation complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) or directly in court. The MCHR’s complaint process is similar to that of the EEOC’s, with its investigation and the possibility of a lawsuit if the retaliation claim cannot be resolved.
The Missouri Human Rights Act also prohibits harassment based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability, religion, and age. This law applies to employers with six or more employees and protects employees from harassment from employers, supervisors, and other employees. It also covers situations where the employer knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take proper action.
Harassment in Missouri workplaces can also be reported to the MCHR, which investigates complaints, attempts conciliation, and can issue a right-to-sue letter if the situation remains unresolved.
What if I Reported My Employer for Racial Harassment, But the Government Didn’t Find Them Guilty of It?
Filing a complaint and seeking a resolution through government agencies is an essential step in opposing discrimination and retaliation, but it’s not always the end of the process. If you reported your employer for racial harassment and the government agency didn’t find them guilty, you still have options.
First, understand that the findings of a government agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a state agency like the Missouri Commission on Human Rights do not necessarily reflect the outcome of a potential lawsuit. These agencies have limited resources and may not be able to conduct as thorough an investigation as would occur during a lawsuit.
Second, you can still pursue legal action against your employer. The government’s determination is not binding in a court of law, and many cases have been won in court despite an initial lack of action by a government agency. The issuance of a “right-to-sue” letter by the EEOC, for example, allows you to take your case to court even if the EEOC didn’t take action itself.
Finally, so long as you made the complaint in good faith, then even if the government determines there was no racial harassment, your employer still may not retaliate against you.
The Complaint Process After an Adverse Action
If you’ve experienced an adverse action from your employer for reporting racial harassment, taking legal action may be your next step. Here are a few things to consider:
- Find the Right Attorney. Seek out a legal professional who specializes in employment discrimination law. They can guide you through the process, help you understand your rights, and represent your interests.
- Document Your Case. Compile all evidence related to your case, including the original complaint of racial harassment, evidence of the retaliation, any interactions with your employer or other employees, and any responses from federal or state agencies.
- File Your Lawsuit. With the help of your attorney, you can formally file a lawsuit against your employer. This will start the legal process, during which both parties will gather evidence, witness testimonies, and legal arguments.
Remember, workplace retaliation is not just unfair—it’s illegal. Knowing your rights, documenting the evidence, and seeking appropriate legal help are key steps to fight back against retaliation in the workplace.
We all deserve fair employment conditions, and we all have the right to be free of racial harassment, unwanted sexual advances, harassment based on sexual orientation, immigration status, and any and all adverse actions made against us for objecting to these behaviors. Unfortunately, the world is not perfect, and, despite federal and state law and whistleblower protections for when employees exercise their rights, a lawyer’s help is still often needed. Laws exist to protect you, but expert legal assistance is available to guide you through the process.
Holman Schiavone, LLC is dedicated to standing up for employees’ rights and can offer you the informed and compassionate representation you need during this difficult time. Don’t let fear keep you silent. Reach out to Holman Schiavone, LLC at 816-330-2253 today for your free consultation to ensure your rights are protected.