The EEOC, OSHA and many other public agencies encourage whistleblowing. They want employees to let them know when their employers are engaged in dangerous, illegal or discriminatory behavior. But what happens after an employee blow the whistle on his or her employer, then has to return to work on Monday?
If you have blown the whistle on your employer as described, and you have been demoted, been victimized by harassment, been fired or suffered any other type of mistreatment at work, you might have a claim. The first step is to determine whether your employer’s actions constitute retaliation.
The elements of retaliation
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website, “A manager may not fire, demote, harass or otherwise “retaliate” against an individual for filing a complaint of discrimination, participating in a discrimination proceeding, or otherwise opposing discrimination.” While this explanation is limited to only discrimination complaints, the general idea is true throughout federal employment law.
An employer cannot demote, harass, fire or otherwise retaliate against an employee for filing a complaint against the employer. This complaint could be for discrimination, for OSHA violations or for any other type of illegal or dangerous behavior – it doesn’t matter. If you filed a complaint against your employer, your employer cannot retaliate against you in any way in the workplace.
To break this down, a retaliation claim involves:
- The employer engaging in illegal or dangerous behavior
- The employee reporting that behavior
- The employer retaliating against the employee for reporting, which can include firing, demoting, harassing and other negative behaviors
This is an extremely simplified explanation of retaliation, and every case is different, but the general idea is true and important.
Why were you mistreated?
The first two elements above are more self-explanatory. Point three here is “for reporting,” meaning the reason for your employer mistreating you is the whistleblowing.
For example, Andy is a brilliant employee who has exceeded all success metrics for the past 20 years. Then, after seeing an OSHA violation, Andy reports it. Two months later, Andy is demoted and his pay is decreased, even though his performance at work has not changed. This is a clear case of retaliation.
In contrast, Barry works for the same company. He has been there for 3 years and has been consistently underperforming, even being put on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) last month due to poor numbers. Then he reports the employer’s OSHA violation and gets fired a month later.
While Andy’s case is a much simpler, more obvious retaliation claim, Barry’s case is not so clear. Did Barry get fired for reporting the employer’s illegal behavior? Or was he fired because he was not performing at work?
These are the types of facts that make retaliation claims so complicated. It is never as clear as Andy’s hypothetical story outlined above.
If you might have been a victim of retaliation at work, the best thing to do is talk with an experienced federal employment attorney about your case.