What’s the number one issue preventing workers from getting the justice they deserve when it comes to employment rights issues? That issue just may be the fear of retaliation. This fear keeps employees silent even when instances of employment discrimination and employment rights violations are severe.

To some extent, the fear of retaliation is a justified one. The most recent National Business Ethics Survey (NBES) found that 21 percent, about 6.2 million Americans, experience retaliation on the job after reporting employer misconduct. That’s a significant number of workers forced to deal with the unfair consequences of reporting wrongdoings in the workplace.

What is retaliation?

Retaliation occurs when an employer reacts adversely to an employee’s decision to file a employment rights complaint. This complaint may be a grievance with the employer or it may a more formal claim filed with a federal or state agency.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there are three ways that employers could be held liable for retaliation. These include when an employer demotes, fires or harasses applicants and employees for

  • complaining about discrimination
  • filing a charge concerning discrimination
  • participating in a discrimination proceeding, including investigations and lawsuits.

The prohibition against retaliation extends to all of the laws the EEOC enforces, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Why Do Employees Fear Retaliation?

Retaliation is a considerable threat to the careers of a number of employees. When a worker knows that he or she could easily be fired, demoted or harassed as a result of  complaining about the behavior of supervisors, managers or other people in authority at the job, the employee may be less likely to speak out about instances of employment discrimination.

According to the Compliance and Ethics Leadership Council, fear of retaliation can be the single biggest indicator of misconduct in the workplace. It can also motivate misconduct, creating a climate of poor ethics and a lack of integrity among workers.

Employers may use fear tactics and intimidation to prevent discrimination complaints and are sometimes successful in persuading employees to keep silent about discrimination. Often, employees are complicit in the intimidation because they are not aware of their viable legal options for formally addressing retaliation when it occurs.

5 Ways to Overcome Fear of Retaliation

Encourage your company to invest in an effective ethics program.

According to the National Business Ethics Survey, 59 percent of large companies without an effective ethics program in place experienced retaliation after reporting wrongdoing compared to only 4 percent in companies with an effective ethics program in place. Encouraging your company to introduce a fair and equal ethics program could reduce the chances that retaliation will occur at your job and create a climate that is conducive to fairness rather than silence on employment rights issues.

When proposing the program, it might be helpful to mention that taking care of ethics issues effectively may actually have positive consequences for the bottom line. Employers stand to save time and money on the cost of defending lawsuits and allegations of discrimination retaliation with an effective ethics program in place.

Increase awareness of laws and regulations protecting workers from retaliation.

As a worker it’s important to stay abreast of all the laws designed to protect your rights especially those concerning discrimination and retaliation. Knowing that you have certain avenues and options to use in case your rights are compromised in any way can take the fear out of reporting incidences of employment misconduct.

Visiting the EEOC website is a great place to start for more information on laws concerning retaliation and the steps that workers can take when retaliation becomes an issue.

Be aware of the forms that retaliation takes in the workplace.

Retaliation can come in a number of forms, and it’s important for workers to identify and recognize retaliation when it happens. Even though just knowing what retaliation looks like may not prevent it from occurring, it could mean that a worker is less likely to succumb to pressure to keep silent about his or her experiences.

Retaliation may take the form of demotion and termination, or more overt forms of harassment, such as verbal abuse or threats. In addition, retaliation may take on even subtler forms.

One such form of retaliation is exclusion. This happens when co-workers or management work to keep complaining employees out of certain work activities. Another is a sudden shift in behavior that results in an employee being given the “cold shoulder”.  All of these forms of retaliation, though subtle, could be significant factors in an employer’s liability for employment rights violations.

Follow your company’s policy for filing a grievance concerning the retaliation

Sometimes the best way to overcome a fear is simply to face it head on. The consequences may seem daunting, but the chance for positive outcomes are also firmly in place. Overcoming the fear of retaliation may involve moving forward on a decision to hold your employer accountable for discriminatory acts. Consider contacting a qualified employment rights attorney for assistance with the grievance process for best results.

Reach out for support.

Another excellent way to combat the fear of retaliation is to seek support from friends, family and professionals. Friends and family can help with handling the often turbulent emotional consequences of dealing with retaliation. Professionals, such as HR personnel and attorneys, can help with navigating the laws, rules and procedures that must be followed in order to obtain favorable outcomes.

Overcome the Fear of Retaliation in the Workplace

Overcoming the fear of retaliation in the workplace is a necessary hurdle for many workers. Those reluctant to address concerns about an employer’s discriminatory practices must take a bold and brave step forward in order to get the justice they deserve and set a new standard in the workplace. Doing so could mean that an employer will act on a decision to use unscrupulous and unlawful means to respond, but the law is clear. Employers must steer clear of retaliation when discrimination is alleged or face the costly consequences.