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What does illegal retaliation look like in the federal workplace?

On Behalf of | Apr 17, 2024 | Federal Employment Law

Workplace retaliation is illegal. Everyone knows that. At the same time, most people understand that retaliation remains a pervasive problem throughout the federal workspace. So, how can this be?

The truth is that agencies, employers and managers often retaliate against workers who complain about discrimination or blow the whistle on worrisome practices. When these managers and decision makers are already engaged in illegal behaviors, they may view retaliation as a means to silence their workers.

Indeed, the Department of Labor (DOL) notes that the fear of retaliation often has a chilling effect. The fear of retaliation prevents many workers from exercising their rights. And workers can find it even harder to stand against workplace retaliation when they don’t know which behaviors cross the line.

12 examples of workplace retaliation

The first step to stamping out workplace retaliation is to learn what it looks like. It’s relatively easy to spot retaliation when your agency fires someone who was doing good work and getting excellent performance reviews just before filing a discrimination complaint. It can be much harder to recognize some of the subtler forms of retaliation.

Retaliation can take many forms. In addition to retaliatory firings, the DOL and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) note roughly a dozen different forms of retaliation:

  • Demotions
  • Wage reductions
  • Negative performance reviews
  • Threats against the worker, family members or co-workers
  • Threats concerning a worker’s immigration status
  • Shift changes
  • Harassment or abuse
  • Transfers
  • Aggressive micromanagement
  • Blacklisting
  • Isolation

Though this list may offer a greater picture of the ways employers may try to retaliate against employees, the list is neither full nor definitive.

When is retaliation illegal?

Workplace retaliation is always illegal. Employers retaliate anytime they take a materially adverse action against a worker in response to that worker’s participation in a protected activity. Such activities may include:

  • Filing complaints about discrimination
  • Reporting safety concerns to OSHA
  • Blowing the whistle on illegal activities
  • Refusing to break the law on the employer’s behalf

The rules seem clear. However, workers often find themselves confronted by their employer’s excuses. Employers tend to claim they acted legally. They may say they acted according to performance-related or cost-related concerns. Accordingly, employees often need help collecting the documents and other evidence they need to support their cases. They often need help structuring their arguments according to the law.

When workers understand what retaliation looks like within the federal workplace, they can start building the evidence they need to help the courts recognize it, too.


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