Your Guide to Workplace Retaliation Laws

Both federal and state employment laws grant legal rights to workers. Employers are generally prevented from retaliating against an employee because that employee exercised a legally protected right.

In this article, our employment law attorneys provide a brief guide to workplace retaliation laws. 

Workplace Retaliation: The Legal Definition

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (E.E.O.C.) explains that workplace retaliation is a cause of action that occurs when an employee is subject to an adverse employment action (firing, demotion, etc.) because he or she engaged in a lawfully protected activity. Many state and federal employment laws expressly prohibit retaliation against employees who opt to exercise their rights.

As an example, consider an office worker who reports sexual harassment by a direct supervisor and is fired the next day. The worker is advised the grounds was filing a complaint against a high-ranking manager. An employer acting in this manner is an open and obvious example of unlawful workplace retaliation.

Note: Retaliation is a distinct action from the underlying offense.  An employee subject to unlawful sexual harassment who then faces retaliation has two potential avenues for recovery against his or her employer.

An Overview of the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act

The General Assembly of North Carolina has adopted laws that prohibit employment retaliation for an employee’s exercise of certain rights.  The North Carolina Department of Labor (N.C.D.O.L.) explains that the North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (R.E.D.A.) is designed to safeguard employees from retaliatory actions by their employers when the ees engage in legally protected activities. R.E.D.A. protects the rights of employees who blow the whistle on illegal or unethical activities, file complaints regarding workplace discrimination or workplace harassment, and participate in investigations of alleged misconduct by an employer as well as other specified activities.

In addition to statutory protections, North Carolina protects at-will employees from discharge or constructive discharge for reasons contrary to public policy.  Our appellate courts have indicated that at-will employees may be separated from employment for irrational or arbitrary reasons, for no reason, but may not do so for an unlawful reason that contravenes public policy.  An example may be an employee who was fired for failing to give false or incomplete testimony as an employer requested or a truck driver fired for refusing his employer’s urging to violate North Carolina safety protections and falsify records to conceal the violation.

Bringing a Successful Workplace Retaliation Claim

Workplace retaliation claims are complex. Statutory claims require specific elements that the worker must establish, and non-statutory claims may arise any time an at-will employee is fired for refusing acts that violate North Carolina public policy.  There are usually three central components an employee must prove in a workplace retaliation case.

  1. A Legally Protected Activity: Retaliation statutes and public policy protect workers who are engaged in legally protected activities. Notable examples of legally protected activities include filing a complaint about workplace discrimination, complaining to a manager about workplace sexual harassment, providing evidence or serving as a witness in an investigation, and openly discussing or criticizing discriminatory practices. Some activities may be protected even though the underlying complaint is unfounded.
  2. Adverse Employment Action: An employee must demonstrate that they suffered an “adverse employment action” or were discharged from an at-will position following participation in a legally protected activity. In addition to being fired, actionable examples of adverse employment actions include demotions, pay cuts, negative job evaluations, or any other negative changes to the terms/conditions of employment.  For North Carolina public policy claims, if an employer makes work conditions completely intolerable so that an employee is forced to leave the employment, a constructive discharge claim may exist.
  3. A Causal Connection: Finally, there must be a causal relationship between the legally protected activity and the adverse employment action. This element is most often disputed. In effect, the employee must prove that he or she was subject to adverse action by an employer as a direct response to their legally protected activity.

As with any contested matter, workplace retaliation claims are evidence-based legal cases that vary based on specific circumstances. Consulting with an attorney can help you determine whether your circumstances support a claim for retaliation by your employer.

Remedies in a Workplace Retaliation Claim

What remedies are available for employees who are damaged by unlawful retaliation? It depends on the specific circumstances. Some laws cap available recovery based on the size of the offending employer.  Remedies may include: 

    • Reinstatement: The employee may be reinstated to their former position if they were unfairly terminated or demoted.
    • Back Pay: Employees may receive compensation for lost wages due to unfair dismissal, demotion, or reduced hours.
    • Front Pay: Compensation for projected future losses due to the retaliation may also be awarded.
    • Compensatory Damages: These cover emotional distress, pain and suffering, and other non-economic damages experienced by the employee.
    • Legal Fees: Employers may be required to pay the employee’s attorney fees and court costs.
    • Punitive Damages: In some cases damages are awarded to penalize the employer for its intentional misconduct.

Contact Our Employment Law Attorneys for Immediate Help

At Anderson Jones, P.L.L.C., our employment lawyers handle complex retaliation claims. If you have any specific questions or concerns about a workplace retaliation case, we are here as a professional resource that you can trust.  Contact us today for a fully confidential consultation.