Retaliation Claims Take Number One Spot in EEOC Complaints


July 27, 2010

Employers beware, the need for credible complaint procedures underscored as current trends show a marked increase in complaints related to retaliation in filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has raised exponentially and workplace audits have ramped up to levels we’ve not seen in years.

According to EEOC data, retaliation charges more than tripled between 1992 and 2009 and now comprise 36% (93,277) of the total charges filed, making it the number one complaint filed with the EEOC.  The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing employment discrimination laws including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

The reason for the rise in retaliation claims is simple – they are easier to prove and the damage awards are often higher than claims of discrimination.  Retaliation claims typically assert that an employer took some adverse action against an employee because the employee exercised a legal right, such as filing a discrimination claim.  Courts often rule in favor of employees in the retaliation part of their lawsuits, even when the underlying discrimination claim is dismissed. 

Generally, unlawful retaliation occurs when an employer treats an employee differently for exercising rights under one or more of the various state or federal statutes. To prove unlawful retaliation an employee is required to establish that (1) the employee engaged in a protected activity, (2) the employer took some adverse employment action against the employee, and (3) a casual connection existed between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.  

To establish that an employee engaged in a protected activity, an employee must show that he or she (a) participated in an activity protected by law (Such as, filed a charge of discrimination, testified in support of another employee, or participated in an investigation.) or (b) opposed an unlawful employment practice.

A common example of retaliation is when an employee bypasses the company, and files an EEOC claim that accuses the supervisor of being a discriminatory behavior.  The law requires that the company treat the subordinate employee as if nothing happened, and as if the accusation was never lodged.  Obviously, a supervisor who feels unfairly accused will want to strike back at the employee that made the accusation. “Striking back” constitutes retaliation. 

The criteria for making retaliation claims follow a relatively low standard as established by the Supreme Court in the 2006 case of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White.  The Supreme Court held that an “adverse action” is any action by an employer that “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”  The Court noted that, unlike discrimination which focuses on characteristics of a group, retaliation claims focus on the conduct of the individual.  The Court’s expansive view of what constitutes an “adverse action” allows employees to claim that almost any action taken by an employer is retaliatory, if that action deters a reasonable employee from coming forward with a complaint. 

Proactive and preventative measures taken by the employer limits even the illusion of systemic retaliatory actions.  Through meaningful and consistent management practices, the following guidelines serve to protect employers and provide a meaningful solutions-oriented workplace when issues arise:

  1. Prepare and disseminate to every employee a written internal procedure for filing a complaint.  If the current anti-discrimination policies do not address retaliation, then amend to include a non-retaliation statement that encourages employees to come forward with complaints of unlawful conduct without fear of reprisal.
  2. Train Supervisors on what constitutes retaliation and how to avoid treating employees differently.  Managers, team leaders, supervisors, etc., must be regularly trained and should understand that negative reaction to a complaint will only make the problem worse and may lead to a retaliation claim. 
  3. Conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation of every claim.  Employees should not be ignored or ostracized and the absence of an investigation has been found to be a form of retaliation.  Therefore the employer should explain the policy against retaliation and procedures for resolving a complaint to include continued assistance if the employee experiences additional problems.  All discussions with the employee should be documented — one meeting may not be enough.  It is a good practice for employers to follow up with the employee and ask whether there have been any further problems after an employee comes forward.
  4. Properly Document Complaints.  Regardless of where or how the complaint was received, it is vital that the employer document when the complaint occurred and when the supervisor became aware of the complaint, who was involved, and what the complaint entails (for example, when documenting the conversation get direct quotes from the employee if possible.)  It should be the employer’s general practice to thoroughly document all employee performance issues.  This practice also allows the employer to demonstrate that any subsequent performance problems are justified and not as a result of alleged retaliation.

Accommodating an employee that has made a complaint can sometimes be difficult, especially when that employee is believed to be a “problem employee” or the employee’s claim has no merit.  Many management teams are made up of top technical talent; however, most are not properly developed to manage people. Such a serious gap poses risk as evidenced by the marked increase in workplace audits relating to employee management. By consistently following written procedures and policies, training management teams, and by exercising caution and restraint, employers can effectively reduce the risks associated with the rise of retaliation claims.

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