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Getting even: How to define retaliation for your employees

If an employee has filed a complaint against your company due to the discriminatory behavior of other employees, you are now in the peculiar position of having to defend that person from his or her co-workers -- whether you want to or not.

Even when an employee is totally justified in filing a complaint, his or her co-workers may be angry because they feel like their fellow employee is breaking ranks, just being a tattletale or putting their jobs at risk. If the other employees feel like their co-worker's complaint is unjustified, their anger can run even deeper.

Getting even brings unnecessary trouble

Evening the score with someone who has caused a problem is a natural human desire. However, it has no place on the job -- because another word for "getting even" is "retaliation." And the words most often associated with retaliation in the workplace are things like "federal lawsuit."

That isn't a combination of words any employer wants to hear -- but they're hearing it far more frequently than they once did. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), retaliation complaints have begun to rise -- in 2013, they accounted for almost half of the complaints brought to the EEOC.

Here's the real problem: The EEOC reports that many of the original complaints based on discrimination end up being dismissed as unfounded. However, the next complaint the employee ends up making -- about retaliation over the original (but unfounded) complaint -- ends up having merit.

Defining retaliation is key to stopping it

As an employer, you have to establish a zero-tolerance policy for retaliation. But how do you define retaliation in a way that makes sense without having to try to think of every possible way one of your employees might retaliate? Consider this definition provided by an expert in psychology:

  • Retaliation is any action that would make the next person think twice before complaining or trying to assert his or her rights.

It's a simple, useful definition that almost anyone can understand -- and a definition you can use to make sure that you don't accidentally engage in retaliation yourself while trying to be helpful (for example, by moving the complaining employee to a different job location away from the angriest co-workers).

An attorney can provide more help in figuring out how to handle retaliation issues based on workplace discrimination complaints.

Source:, "Retaliation - Making it Personal," accessed Oct. 12, 2017

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