Fear of Retaliation after a Workplace Harassment Complaint

On Behalf of | Oct 8, 2021 | Sexual Harassment |

Why is taking that leap and filing a workplace harassment complaint such a difficult decision for sexual harassment victims? They shudder at the thought of going to work each day. They dread their supervisor leering at them, making comments to them, touching them. They are tired of making excuses to avoid being alone with him. In short, victims want the harassment to stop. Still, many victims of harassment hesitate to come forward and speak up.

Why? Why would someone being subjected to this type of abuse wait to report it or never report it at all?

The truth is, there could be a number of reasons why victims of harassment stay silent. They may not know how to report it – they don’t know who to go to or they don’t know exactly what to say. It could be that the victim is simply too embarrassed to repeat the horrifying things that are being said or done. Many fear that they won’t be believed.

Perhaps the most significant reason employees don’t report harassment is the paralyzing fear of retaliation.

  • Will the harasser know I reported him?
  • Will my co-workers or managers be upset with me?
  • Will anyone still talk to me?
  • Will I lose my job?

Most people are dependent on their jobs to provide for themselves and their families, and would never intentionally do anything to jeopardize it. As a result, many victims of harassment suffer in silence day after day rather than risk losing their employment.

Legal Protection against Retaliation in the Workplace

While the fear of retaliation is a real and reasonable concern and no one can predict how a complaint of harassment will be received, victims can take some level of comfort in the fact that there are anti-retaliation laws to protect employees who report harassment. Whether filing a complaint on behalf of yourself or a co-worker, these laws make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee that reports harassment in the workplace.

Anti-retaliation statutes generally make it unlawful for an “employer” to take “materially adverse employment action” against any employee who has made a good faith complaint of harassment. Therefore, even if the offensive conduct does not rise to the level of “unlawful harassment”, the individual reporting the harassment is still protected. The Equal Employment Opportunity laws prohibit punishing job applicants or employees for asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination including harassment.

Subtle Retaliation after a Harassment Claim

Since anti-retaliation laws prohibit employers from taking “materially adverse employment actions”, it will be helpful to understand what types of employment actions qualify as “materially adverse employment actions.” Termination and demotion are the most obvious adverse employment actions. Less obvious forms of retaliation could include being transferred to a new job or having your workstation moved, getting poor performance evaluations, or being excluded from meetings or group events.

While retaliation can come in almost any form, employers are generally aware of the anti-retaliation laws. Therefore, it is almost unheard of for an employer to acknowledge that they have fired, demoted, disciplined, or taken any adverse action against an employee because he or she filed a complaint of harassment.

More often, retaliation will be much more subtle. An employer could wait weeks or even months before taking adverse action and that adverse action will come under the guise of a legitimate business need, unrelated to the complaint. For example, the complaining employee could be told that they are being laid off for economic reasons, or that they are being fired or demoted for violating company policy, or because their performance had fallen off.

Because retaliation is not always obvious, employees who report harassment should be sensitive to any changes in their work environment or unusual occurrences after they have filed their complaint, and they should make a note of any such changes or occurrences.

Proof of Retaliation Is Key

With the proper proof, even the most subtle actions can support a claim of retaliation. And, combining a claim of retaliation with the underlying harassment claim can make for a very strong case in court.

In conclusion, if you are being harassed at work and are concerned about reporting it for fear of retaliation, know that your concerns are justified. There are, however, anti-retaliation laws that protect you so you don’t have to suffer in silence.

If you are being harassed and would like to report it or if you have reported harassment and suspect that you are being retaliated against, we would be honored to hear your story.

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