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What Qualifies as Retaliation in the Workplace?

Knowing which behaviors to avoid following a workplace incident or whistleblower complaint protects both managers and employees

Posted by Ann Snook on September 23rd, 2020

When an employee makes a complaint, whether external or internal, you might have a knee-jerk reaction as an employer. You want to protect your employees, but you’re also concerned about protecting your company’s good name.

Following an internal complaint or a whistleblower report, removing the complainant from the situation might seem like the easiest solution. But think carefully before acting. Any reaction that could be interpreted as punishment for making the complaint could be viewed as retaliation.

Do you know what qualifies as retaliation in the workplace?


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Workplace Punishments


In 2019, a group of Google employees claimed that their human resources complaints, often regarding harassment, were falling on deaf ears. What’s worse, the company not only ignored their concerns but retaliated against them through various workplace “punishments.”

Vox reports:

“Nearly all of the claims in the document share a similar pattern. An employee would raise a concern internally to HR or their manager. After the employee reported the issue, they say they faced indirect punishment: negative performance reviews, demotions, or being dropped from desirable projects. In several cases, employees wrote that HR investigations dragged on for weeks or months without a conclusion, and meanwhile they were forced to continue working with their alleged harassers.”

Nearly any negative reaction to a complainant or whistleblower can be retaliation. If the employer takes negative action against the employee after their complaint because of the complaint, the employee can claim retaliation.

Retaliation might look like:

  • demotion
  • moving the employee to a less desirable project
  • physical or verbal abuse
  • giving the employee an unfairly poor performance review
  • increased scrutiny of the employee’s work
  • spreading rumors about the employee and/or their family
  • excluding or avoiding the employee
  • making “the person’s work more difficult (for example, punishing an employee for an EEO complaint by purposefully changing his work schedule to conflict with family responsibilities)”
  • slow or no investigation into internal complaints


RELATED: 5 Tips to Prevent Retaliation Claims During Investigations




COVID-19 has put major strain on employers. In addition to normal safety and HR concerns, they now have to secure the workplace against a pandemic outbreak. Unfortunately, due to financial or time constraints, not all employers have taken proper preventive measures, and some have retaliated against employees who have complained.

In 2020, OSHA has received hundreds of complaints of whistleblower protection law violations from employees. Many claim they shared concerns about COVID-19 safety measures with their employer, only to be terminated after their complaint.

In Cimmino v. Italian Village Pizzeria, a New Jersey employee alleges that his employer did not provide masks to employees, nor establish social distancing protocols. When the employee requested to quarantine at home after other employees exhibited COVID-19 symptoms and/or tested positive for the virus, he was terminated.

In Clark v. Calson Management, LLC, a California healthcare employee was tasked with assessing incoming residents to the senior living facility where she worked. She objected to the assignment when she thought she was exposed to COVID-19, as she did not want to spread the virus to a vulnerable population, and was terminated.

Termination and other forms of retaliation violate whistleblower and employment laws, depending on the nature of the complaint. Rather than facing fines, address the employee’s concerns. You’ll save money and show that you’re a caring employer and ethical company.


To prevent retaliation in your workplace, you need to foster an open and ethical work environment. Learn how in our free webinar.


Ann Snook
Ann Snook

Marketing Writer

Ann is a marketing writer at i-Sight Software. She writes about issues related to investigations of fraud, employee misconduct, corporate security, Title IX, ethics & compliance and more.

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