Those of us old enough to remember the Watergate scandal from the early 1970s will remember that what brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency was not the burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, but rather the cover-up that followed the burglary. A similar principle can be seen in employment law. Often, it is not original act of alleged discrimination or harassment that brings down an employer, but rather a subsequent act of retaliation the employer engages in against the employee who accuses it of discrimination or harassment.
Let’s say you are an employer, and one of your employees claims that they are being paid less than their co-workers because of their sex or race. You, as the employer, happen to know that is not true. You have legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for paying this particular worker less. Perhaps he is less productive than his co-workers, or perhaps he has less experience. Nevertheless, you find yourself being falsely accused of race or sex discrimination.
You understandably are angry, right? You have been falsely accused of a really bad act. Essentially, you have been accused of being a racist or sexist. Can’t you fire the employee who has made this false accusation against you?
No, you can’t. At least not legally.
Retaliation is a normal human response. That is why it happens so often. When any of us is attacked, regardless of whether the attack is physical or verbal or otherwise, our immediate impulse is to retaliate. It is almost a reflex. We instinctively act to defend ourselves from the attacker. That is why retaliation claims are so common, and why they get so many employers into trouble. When we retaliate, we are just doing what comes naturally.
Despite retaliation being a normal and natural human response, in this context the law says the employer CANNOT legally do it. As long as the employee has a reasonable belief that his allegation is true – even if he turns out to be completely wrong – the employer is prohibited from retaliating against him in any form for making the accusation. This principle not only applies when the accusation is made as part of a formal legal action, such as filing a charge with a government agency, but also when an accusation is made informally, such as in a conversation with a supervisor or human resources employee.
The prohibition against retaliation is very broad. Prohibited retaliation includes not just obvious actions like firing the employee, but also more subtle actions, such as harassment, excluding the employee from opportunities for overtime, or denying the employee a promotion.
If you have questions about your rights as an employer or an employee when it comes to retaliation, it is wise to seek the advice of an experienced employment attorney before you act. Just remember what happened to Richard Nixon!