EEOC focuses on illegal employer retaliation against employees

Federal and state civil rights laws make it illegal to retaliate against workers who allege discrimination in the workplace.

It is of course unlawful for an employer to allow discrimination or harassment against an employee or job applicant based on a protected characteristic like race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability and others. What many people do not realize is that the same anti-discrimination laws go an important step further by making it illegal for the employer to retaliate against an employee, ex-employee or job applicant for engaging in related protected activity.

Some of the retaliatory actions an employer could take include termination of employment, demotion, failure to promote, withholding of benefits and job perks, unsubstantiated negative reviews or references and so on.

Examples of employee activity that is protected from employer retaliation include:

  • Reporting discrimination or harassment internally or to an appropriate government agency
  • Filing a discrimination or harassment claim or lawsuit with an agency or court
  • Cooperating in a discrimination or harassment investigation
  • Participating as a witness in another person's discrimination or harassment claim
  • And more

Raymond Peeler, an attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws, described retaliation, sometimes called reprisal, as "the linchpin for all civil rights enforcement - if employees fear the repercussions of filing a charge or complaint, then their rights are unlikely to be enforced."

Indeed, without strong laws against employer retaliation, rights against discrimination in the workplace lose their teeth because employee-victims will be afraid to speak out and take action if they are not secure in their jobs.

Accordingly, the EEOC has made retaliation one of its enforcement priorities, holding a major conference on the topic in 2015. The agency has released its fiscal year 2015 statistics about the almost 90,000 discrimination claims filed with it during that time. Retaliation charges were the most frequently filed category, making up a whopping 45 percent of private sector claims.

In that fiscal year, the agency helped victims of retaliation recover $173.5 million through administrative remedies like settlement negotiations or conciliation efforts with employers.

Anyone who has experienced discrimination, harassment or retaliation at work, in the job application process or as an ex-employee should speak with an experienced lawyer as soon as possible to understand potential legal remedies such as filing a claim with a government agency or court. Legal counsel can also conduct an investigation on behalf of the client. This area of law is very complex, involving procedural and deadline requirements, so time may be of the essence and legal guidance important.

On the other side of the coin, an employer or anyone going into business who anticipates having employees should get thorough legal advice to understand what the law expects in terms of training, prevention, investigation, intervention, internal policies, complaint procedures and similar matters.

Based in Milwaukee and with offices in Waukesha, Wausau and Chicago, the attorneys at Cross Law Firm, S.C., represent clients in discrimination, harassment and retaliation matters as well as in a wide range of employment issues.