Everything You Should Know About Workplace Retaliation in California

A woman looks at retaliation forms from her employer.

A report from the Economic Policy Institute found that employers steal billions of dollars from workers per year. Wage theft isn’t the only labor law violation employers regularly commit – 44% of employees report experiencing harassment while at work, and 38% through email, video conferencing, chat apps, or by phone. Employees deserve safe, inclusive workplaces. When workers lodge a complaint with organizations such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about illegal activity, their employers often fall under investigation. Unfortunately, many choose to respond by retaliating against the employees attempting to hold them accountable – known as workplace retaliation. 

Today, we look at what exactly workplace retaliation is, how it occurs, and what you can do if an employer retaliates against you for reporting or filing a lawsuit against them. 

What Is Workplace Retaliation?

As defined by the Legal Information Institute

In an employment context, retaliation is punishment of an employee by an employer for engaging in legally protected activity, such as making a complaint of harassment to a governmental body, or participating in workplace investigations. Retaliation can include any negative job action, such as demotion, discipline, firing, salary reduction, or job or shift reassignment.

As this excerpt mentions, employees who file complaints or lawsuits with organizations aren’t the only ones who experience retaliation. Employers may also retaliate against employees who cooperate with investigators or testify about the validity of a complaint or suit. 

word jumble about workplace retaliation.

Whistleblower Protections in the U.S.

In the U.S., employees who report labor law violations to state or government organizations, such as the EEOC or California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), are often called “whistleblowers.” According to the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR), a whistleblower is any employee who discloses labor law violations to:

  • A government organization;
  • Law enforcement agency;
  • Employee supervisor; or
  • A fellow employee;

Who has the authority to investigate, discover, or correct the violation in question. Whistleblowers receive a number of protections. According to the DIR, an employer…

May not make, adopt, or enforce any rule, regulation, or policy preventing an employee from being a whistleblower. 

Cannot retaliate against an employee who is a whistleblower. 

May not retaliate against an employee for refusing to participate in an activity that would result in a violation of a state or federal statute, or a violation or noncompliance with a state or federal rule or regulation. 

Cannot retaliate against an employee for having exercised his or her rights as a whistleblower in any former employment.

Whistleblowers who experience workplace retaliation from employers can file a workplace retaliation lawsuit or complaint against the responsible party. Employers found guilty of retaliation may need to compensate employees for lost wages, pain and suffering, and even reinstate their employment and benefits. 

What Are Examples of Workplace Retaliation?

Unfortunately, workplace retaliation is fairly common – and many states don’t take enough measures to protect employees from it. A 2016 study by the EEOC revealed that 75% of workers who reported workplace harassment experienced some form of retaliation. That figure hasn’t changed notably over the years – a 2020 study by Time’s Up found that 72% of employees who reported sexual harassment faced retaliation. 

A woman's employer demeans her.

Common examples of workplace retaliation include:

Termination or Demotion

Employers sometimes wrongfully terminate or demote employees who report labor law violations. In some instances, demotion or termination happens immediately, and can easily be connected to an employee complaint (and therefore, proven as harassment). 

In other situations, an employer may try and write increasingly poor performance reviews for an employee over time to “justify” their demotion or termination and protect themselves from a retaliation or wrongful termination lawsuit.

Promotion or Raise Denial

Occasionally, employees who report labor law violations suddenly find themselves losing upward mobility in their organization. This can take the form of raise denials, despite other employees in the same position or with similar (or worse) performance continuing to receive raises. 

It can also manifest as a stalled career, where an employee who was previously promised a promotion suddenly finds themself “ineligible” for manufactured reasons or on false premises.  

Salary or Benefit Reductions

Like promotion and raise denials, some employers retaliate against workers by reducing their compensation or benefits. 

Shift, Accommodation, or Schedule Reassignment and Changes

Frequently, employers try and “freeze out” employees who report illegal activity. Many employers know that if they actively terminate an employee or renege on promised career advancements, they’ll be found guilty of retaliation in a lawsuit or complaint. 

Instead, some employers may purposefully change an employee’s shifts or schedule, making it difficult or even impossible for them to continue working without compromising their quality of life. In some instances, they may even involve discontinuing reasonable accommodations for an employee with a disability or condition. 

Poor Behavior Towards Friends, Family and Loved Ones

Some employers retaliate against employees by providing purposefully poor service to that employee’s friends, family members, or loved ones. This can be especially apparent in situations where an individual an employee is related to or knows frequents their place of work, or is an employee. 

A workplace retaliation form.

What Can I Do If My Employer Retaliates Against Me?

If your employer engages in workplace retaliation, you can file a retaliation lawsuit against them using an employment attorney. Alternatively, you can file a retaliation complaint with a state or federal government organization. 

Californians can file a retaliation complaint with the Labor Commissioner’s Office. After filing a complaint, the Retaliation Complaint Investigation Unit (RCI) will investigate whether your employer retaliated. If the RCI rules in your favor, the DIR will enforce penalties on your employer. 

FILE A RETALIATION COMPLAINT.

It’s worth noting that filing a retaliation lawsuit often offers workers a more efficient path toward justice. An attorney can immediately begin working on your case. In contrast, government agencies often have a backlog of cases they need to work through before pursuing new complaints. 

At Wilshire Law Firm, our attorneys have protected California employees for over a decade. If your employer retaliates against you for exercising your right to report illegal activity, contact us online or call us at (800) 501-3011 for a free, discreet consultation. We’re here to ensure corporations that abuse their power are held accountable.