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Workplace Retaliation

What is retaliation in the workplace?

Workplace retaliation can be defined as any adverse action taken by an employer against employees who filed a formal case of workplace harassment, immoral practices, or discrimination.

The most common types at the receiving end are often low-performing individuals (63%) and women (62%). The harshest treatments meted out to them are termination (80%) and hostile treatment (78%).

EEOC defines “retaliation as an adverse action against an employee for engaging in protected activities. The adverse action can be termination, demotion or harassment, and there is a connection between the activity and the resulting action”.

What are some examples of retaliation in the workplace?

Workplace retaliation can be broken mainly under two heads: overt and subtle.

  • Overt Retaliation defines the individual’s behavior when they openly abuse their power without disguising their actions.
  • Subtle Retaliation is a more indirect way of engaging in retaliatory activities, and they are difficult to distinguish.

Examples of overt retaliation in the workplace

A few common examples of retaliation are:

  1. Termination, discharge, or suspension
  2. Demotion or exclusion from promotion
  3. Salary or job responsibilities reduction
  4. Biased performance appraisal
  5. Forced relocation, schedule change or work timing change

Sam, an ethical marketing manager, became an easy target for overt retaliation when she exposed the unethical practices deployed by the Marketing Head. She faced exclusion, unfair performance review, verbal abuse and even public humiliation.

Examples of subtle retaliation in the workplace

A few common examples of retaliation in the workplace are:

  1. Creating unrealistic performance expectations, work overload, and micromanagement.
  2. “Just joking” and “Speech” harassment like sarcastic humor, snarky remarks, or offensive remarks.
  3. Exclusion from team outings
  4. Not listening to one’s inputs
  5. Spreading false rumors, gossiping, or playing pranks

Jack reported the misconduct of his manager, Annie. Post this incident, a silent storm brewed between them. Incidents of micro-exclusion, ignoring ideas, altering schedules and projects became prominent and tested Jack’s resilience.

What are the signs of retaliation at work?


signs of retaliation at workplace

Retaliation against employees who raised rightful concerns regarding their wrongdoings is unadvisable, it is common human nature to assert dominance over the weaker section. While few of the retaliation practices like demotion and firing are direct, here are 5 most common signs of retaliation at the workplace:

Biased performance reviews

Employees often experience unfair performance evaluations after reporting a complaint against the management, like sudden negative reviews given to the star performers.

For example, Raj testified against the company, showing his stand against the subpar safety standards being followed. After this, she witnessed a sudden drop in her performance rating, citing irregular reasons.

Exclusion from opportunities

Targeted employees deliberately face exclusion from meetings, social gatherings, or other social activities.

For example, Jessica is often denied participation in after-work social gatherings after she filed a harassment case against one of the senior managers.

Sudden increase in workload

Employees are burdened with unrealistic deadlines and excessive workloads after voicing their concerns.

For example, Emma reported tax irregularities commonly happening in the organization in the last 6 months. Post which she was given unrealistic deadlines and excessive responsibilities.

Verbal or psychological abuse

Employees have reported verbal and psychological abuse at their workplaces after they reported their concerns, like constant criticism, hostile work culture, and public humiliation.

For example, Mackel raised racial discrimination complaints against one of the supervisors, and since then, he has been subjected to verbal abuse from his colleagues and supervisors alike.

Sudden disciplinary actions

Employees cited sudden and unjust disciplinary actions for minor issues or mistakes, like disapproving leave requests or limiting their authority.

For example, Latika was suddenly reprimanded for the smallest of errors, often overlooked after she reported ethical lapses in her department’s procedures.

How to prevent retaliation in the workplace?

prevention of retaliation in workplace

While there are no easy answers to this question, a few precautions that can be taken by organizations to prevent such incidents are:

Create a strong anti-retaliation policy: 49% of employees strongly believe that retaliation impacts an organization’s revenue, so it’s crucial to have a well-designed and executed retaliation policy in place.

Identify the vulnerabilities in the system: Train all employees, especially the superiors, on practices or behavior that violate laws and highlight the legal risks and the irreparable damage to the brand’s reputation.

Highlight the unconscious biases: Training workshops and transparent communication channels to raise awareness on the everyday retaliatory actions involuntarily affected by perceptions, personality, or stereotypes.

Ensure protection of the victim: Organizations should actively protect the potential victims of these practices by maintaining constant communication with them and protecting their identity.

Creating a department to handle complaints quickly: The HR department should stay agile and not overlook the slightest complaints. Thorough investigations of each reported case while understanding the perspectives of both sides before arriving at a final decision is necessary.


Q1. Can an employer fire an employee in retaliation?

No, firing an employee for reporting protected actions like illegal activities is against employment laws and can lead to serious legal consequences.

Q2. What is the penalty for retaliation?

The most common penalties for workplace retaliation are legal actions, financial settlements, and disciplinary actions against the concerned authorities or the entire organization, depending on the seriousness of the retaliation.

Q3. Is retaliation always illegal?

No, retaliation is not always illegal, as a few legal jurisdictions protect organizations under certain circumstances and instances.

Q4. Can an employer retaliate if I make a false complaint?

If you make false claims, the employer cannot retaliate legally. However, it seriously damages the individual’s credibility and might lead to disciplinary actions.

Q5. What is the difference between retribution and retaliation?

Retribution is the punishment for wrongdoings, while retaliation is an act of revenge in response to a reported offense at the workplace.

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