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When do federal employment problems become legal concerns?

On Behalf of | Jul 3, 2023 | Federal Employment Law

Sometimes, things go wrong at work, or you have a bad day. Sometimes, someone treats you badly, or you feel you got the short end of the stick. But, bad days, irritating coworkers and frustrating work environments are not, in themselves, reasons to pursue legal action.

You need a legal concern to pursue a legal solution. That means demonstrating that your problem fits within one of the various categories for legal responses. Here are three of the most common issues that can merit a legal response.


Federal law prevents employers from discriminating against applicants and employees based on their membership in one or more protected classes. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) notes, these classes include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Genetic information

Here, it’s important to note that sex discrimination includes gender identity, sexual preference and pregnancy. Federal laws limit age discrimination to people ages 40 and older. Some state laws may also protect applicants and employees under 40. Genetic information discrimination includes any adverse actions against people based on things like their families’ medical histories.

To win a discrimination case, you must show that an employer took an adverse action against you because you belong to one or more of these classes. Adverse actions include:

  • Failure to hire
  • Removal
  • Demotion
  • Pay cuts
  • Failure to promote
  • Poor performance reviews
  • And more

You will also likely need to show the agency demonstrated a pattern of discrimination or treated you unfairly. Often, this means showing that the agency treated comparable employees better than you.


The EEOC also enforces rules against workplace retaliation. Retaliation occurs when an agency or employer takes an adverse action against someone because that person previously took a protected action. Protected actions include such things as filing whistleblower or EEOC complaints.

As the EEOC notes, you must successfully demonstrate three things to win a retaliation claim:

  • You took a protected action
  • Your agency or employer took an adverse action against you
  • The agency or employer was motivated by a desire to punish you or discourage others from taking similar actions

The Supreme Court has previously called retaliation a “form of ‘discrimination’” because the employer is treating the employee differently. However, it differs from other forms of discrimination because it relies on the sequence of events noted above.

Negative performance reviews and disciplinary actions

Federal laws aim to ensure our country’s government hires, rewards and promotes workers according to their merits. The result is that federal employees typically have the right to respond to negative performance reviews and proposed disciplinary actions.

With a carefully crafted response, you might explain why the agency’s review or discipline is not appropriate. There are many possible reasons:

  • Discrimination
  • Retaliation
  • Failure to follow statutory guidelines
  • Failure to comply with agency policies
  • Incorrect facts
  • Misunderstandings
  • Contextual considerations

It’s important to realize that your response can lay the groundwork for future legal actions. Even if the agency continues with the negative review or discipline, you have options. These may include filing discrimination or retaliation complaints. Or it may mean challenging the discipline in a hearing with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB).

Understanding federal employment law

These are just a few of the more common reasons you might want an attorney to help you pursue a legal solution to your workplace problems. Not every workplace problem demands legal action, but these can.

Finally, it’s important to understand that the laws for federal employees differ from those for workers in the private sector. Accordingly, if you have a legal concern to address, make sure your attorney understands the differences between the rules for private sector and federal employees.


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