two ghosts standing at their job

A Halloween Nightmare: Workplace Retaliation

The scariest haunted house movie would take place in a building full of offices. In each one, you, the protagonist, encounter an upper management team from your company, leering at you over expensive desks, the flickering lights graying their faces and deadening their eyes. The management team smiles at you in condescension while they stuff their wallets and brag about their labor violations. You’re confident that they can hear your rapid heartbeat and shallow breath.  Your role as the hero of this story is to stand up to them, and assert your rights in the workplace.  

Standing up for yourself is a difficult task, generally, but it’s made even harder at work, where the company exercises a massive degree of control over your personal and professional life. What stops many people from asserting their rights in the workplace is a fear that their income, access to healthcare, future career opportunities, and personal safety are on the line. Many potential lawsuits and complaints–which could have the power to change workplaces for the better–die before they’re ever filed, lost to a fear of retaliation.

Identifying the Monster:

The spookiest monsters are those which we don’t know the truth about, so let’s learn about what retaliation looks like! When people think about retaliation, they often think about getting fired, but that’s not the only recognized form of retaliation. Retaliation can be any “materially adverse action” taken or threatened against an employee specifically for exercising (or potentially exercising) their workplace rights. Other possible forms of retaliation include:

  • Unfair reprimands
  • Undesirable schedule changes or position changes
  • Threats to contact police or ICE 
  • Physical abuse
  • Making an employee’s work more difficult
  • Removal of benefits
  • And more

Defeating the Threat of Retaliation:

Employers are absolutely not allowed to retaliate against employees who exercise their rights in the workplace. There are consequences for employers who retaliate. Employees who were retaliated against may have the right to seek back pay, lost wages, reinstatement, punitive damages, and other appropriate remedies, depending on the circumstances of their specific situation. In short, regardless of what your employer tells you, no matter their company policy, no matter the threats they make, the law protects you from the monster of retaliation.

Your Role as the Hero:

Even if you know that your employer isn’t allowed to retaliate against you, and that you can seek remedies if they do, standing up to your employer still requires a lot of bravery. Asserting your rights at work is extremely important, though. Keeping informed about your rights, and exercising them, is a great way to make your workplace suck a little less. So go ahead, arm yourself with knowledge, then go forth and talk about your wages, make your complaints, unionize, and file those lawsuits!

Written by Cecil Mattson, 2L of Texas A&M School of Law

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