What is unintentional workplace retaliation? Could you recognize it if it happened to you?
Sometimes well-meaning employers end up doing the wrong thing for the right reasons — but their actions are a form of retaliation and harmful.
The definition of workplace retaliation
Retaliation is almost any sort of adverse action taken against you for a protected activity. This could include something obvious, like a demotion or a derogatory performance review, or it could be something that’s far subtler, like a transfer to another office. In other words, anything that might make someone else think twice about doing whatever it is that you did to prompt your employer’s actions might be considered retaliation.
Examples of unintentional retaliation
Unintentional retaliation may fly under the radar because your employer is actually convinced that he or she is acting appropriately.
For example, imagine that you are Asian. Your manager, who has been with the company for years, makes a number of racist comments that play on Asian stereotypes. After an attempt to address the problem directly goes nowhere, you complain to human resources. Your employer, eager to avoid further problems, immediately transfers you to a different department while promising to investigate the issue.
That could be a prime example of unintentional retaliation. If the new department isn’t where you want to be, the transfer inconveniences you or you feel singled out and subjected to unnecessary scrutiny from others, that puts you at a distinct disadvantage.
Similarly, imagine that you are merely a witness to some sort of gender-based discrimination. You are asked to give a statement during an investigation and you do so. Eventually, the case is dismissed, but your supervisor seems to hold a grudge against you for “turning” on him. You complain to management and are reassigned to other duties under a different supervisor.
In both cases, your employer may think that he or she is doing the right thing, but the result could be chilling to anyone else who is thinking of complaining or agreeing to testify about someone else’s complaint.
Responses to workplace retaliation
How should you respond to unintentional retaliation at work?
Communicate your problem to the human resources department or person who is handling your original complaint. If you are unable to get a quick resolution, an experienced attorney can help you determine your next course of action.