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by Rob Porter | April 07, 2022


We recently spoke about a variety of situations in which you might want to seek the assistance of the Human Resources department. In nearly any case, Human Resources representatives are there to help you and to foster a working environment that is both amicable and free of interpersonal conflict; however, there is a dark side to all of this. In this first part we are going to be talking about protected activity and retaliation in the workplace.

First, let’s define what is known as “protected activity.” Protected activity in the workplace refers to certain actions that are taken by an employee in response to clearly defined illegal or unethical behaviors or conditions that the employee has either witnessed, or fallen victim to. Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws protect job applicants and employees from retaliation in the event they are exercising their rights to employment that is free of discrimination and harassment.

Here are some examples of actions that are protected by EEO laws:

  • communicating with the appropriate channels (eg: a supervisor or HR representative) with regards to employment discrimination and harassment;
  • resisting sexual advances; 
  • intervening with the intent to protect another employee from being the victim of clearly defined illegal or unethical behaviors or conditions, and     
  • participating in an approved employer investigation with regards to alleged discrimination or harassment.

EEO activities do not make you entirely bulletproof, however. Engaging in EEO protected activities can still result in punishment or termination if the employer is motivated by reasons that are either non-discriminatory or non-retaliatory in nature. In other words, an employer can still terminate an employee who has taken action that falls under the protective umbrella of EEO laws for reasons that are somehow unrelated to that employee’s initial claim.

Next, we will define workplace retaliation. If an associate or employer takes action that is in direct response to an EEO protected complaint against them, and that action results in either disciplinary action or the termination of the employee who filed the initial complaint, it is known as workplace retaliation. Since we have EEO laws in place that allow employees to engage in protected activities as described above, workplace retaliation is illegal.

According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), nearly half of all complaints filed are retaliation claims, while up to 70% of retaliation cases are the result of actions committed by those in supervisory roles. While we can operate on the assumption that at least some of these claims are frivolous in nature, the numbers are still quite alarming.

What we can infer from the data provided by the U.S. EEOC is that in many cases, retaliation takes place when an employee in power is attempting to exert that power over an employee of lesser stature or perceived power within the organization. To say it more plainly, if an employee crosses the wrong person in power with an EEO complaint against them, it might not work out so well for that employee.

It’s important to remember that in most cases, people are apt to get along and perform their roles within the workplace, and there is seldom any very serious reason to get Human Resources involved, much less file a formal complaint against someone. That said, those instances do occur and they must be treated carefully and thoughtfully. Being educated about your rights as an employee is extremely important, and you can often find information about your rights in your organization’s employee handbook. Another excellent resource is the U.S. EEO’s official website.

Now that we know a bit about protected activities and workplace retaliation, we can talk about how to identify retaliatory actions, how to prevent retaliation, and what to do if you find yourself being the victim of retaliation in the workplace, so keep it dialed in here for the upcoming part two of The Dark Side of Going to The Human Resources Department.