You have been sexually harassed at work. It's a problem, and it's interfering both with your personal and professional life. You finally build enough strength to make a formal complaint about it, but then something completely unexpected happens: your employer fires you instead. Retaliation is among the most common of all alleged forms of discrimination.
Here's what you need to know if you have been sexually harassed in the workplace, complained about it, and then were retaliated against for your complaint.
What Constitutes Retaliation?
Retaliation is conduct that is sufficiently harmful to the individual who complained of the sexual harassment. Each jurisdiction may differ to some degree what actually constitutes as "harmful," but some clear examples of court-recognized retaliation include:
- Denial of a promotion
- Wrongful termination
- Demotion; i.e., perform undesired tasks
- Lateral transfer to a different position with different tasks
- Negative and/or undeserved performance ratings and evaluations
- Absence of severance pay after employee's position was eliminated
- Suspension without pay
- Employer or co-worker harassment unrelated to sex but most likely related to the sexual harassment complaint (e.g., key marks on car, rubber bands shot at complainant)
- Employer or co-workers labeling individual as a liar or trouble-maker.
Apart from the person making the complaint, anyone else involved in investigating a complaint may also potentially be victimized by retaliation.
Retaliation is subject to the same laws as unlawful discrimination, such as those based on sex, race, religion, etc. The law, however, protects any employee who complains about discrimination or sexual harassment or who participates in any investigation of said complaint of discrimination or sexual harassment.
Why Does Retaliation Occur?
In an EEO report titled Retaliation - Making it Personal, retaliatory actions are viewed through social psychology as being similar to revenge that someone seeks after feeling treated unfairly or following an unpleasant social interaction. For example, if a party accused of discrimination believes he or she did not do anything wrong, he or she may retaliate; the complaint is made personal. The report suggested it is a way for people to cope with anxiety from what they believe to be unjustified accusations.
The problem, however, is that sexual harassment accusations are almost always justified, and the employer must take your word for it and have the matter properly and thoroughly investigated. It's not just a request or suggestion to have it investigated, it's the law.
What Can You Do If You Have Been Retaliated Against?
There are a number of things you can do if you believe you have been retaliated against. First, you may want to consult an experienced sexual harassment attorney to learn more about your rights and options.Second, keep a journal of everything that has transpired. Third, gather evidence--including circumstantial--that can show the employer was factually wrong to deny a promotion, fire you, demote you, or whatever the retaliation may have been. Speak to your colleagues and anyone else in your office that knows what is happening and supports you, and keep their contact information.
An experienced sexual harassment lawyer will be able to address both the sexual harassment complaint and the retaliation that transpired subsequent to your complaint. In the end, however, it is up to you to seek help. Sexual harassment is many things, and if coupled with retaliation, it can serve as a powerful tool to silence you, but in the period of #metoo, silence should no longer be an option. You are not alone; seek help.