What Is Workplace Retaliation?

Imagine an employee was just fired. Their boss says it’s because the company is going through a transition and doesn’t believe the employee can meet the new demands. The employee knows, however, that they have a history of disagreeing with their boss over the morality of certain business decisions made in the past. As a result, the employee believes they are actually being fired for speaking up about these decisions.

Would the employee have a valid retaliation claim?

In a scenario like this, it’s not impossible to sue for workplace retaliation, but the devil is in the details. In a nutshell, workplace retaliation amounts to punishing an employee for engaging in a protected activity at work. Let’s take a deeper look at what that means.

Retaliation is Centered on Protected Activities

The very nature of the word “retaliation” implies something is happening as a result of something else. When it comes to workplace retaliation, this exchange typically begins when an employee engages in a protected activity.

A protected activity can be broadly defined as any lawful action an employee takes to complain about, report, or correct an unlawful incident or activity at work.

Examples of protected activities include the following:

  • Complaining about discrimination
  • Reporting sexual harassment
  • Intervening to protect a coworker from harassment
  • Requesting reasonable accommodation at work for a disability
  • Demanding compensation for unpaid hours or overtime
  • Reporting an employer for engaging in unlawful business practices
  • Refusing to participate in illegal activity demanded by an employer

Hopefully, two things are clear with this list: 1) It is not exhaustive and 2) the breadth of what could be deemed a protected activity is extremely wide, but at the heart of each is that a lawful action is taken against an employer’s unlawful actions or policies.

What Isn’t a Protected Activity?

Many things people do at work can be protected by law, but not everything can be done without consequence. If that were possible, companies all over would be constantly sued for merely trying to uphold their lawful policies or using the at-will employment doctrine adopted by 49 states.

Things that aren’t protected activities can include the following:

  • Discussing a boss’ extramarital affair
  • Asking for a raise
  • Disregarding a dress code
  • Complaining about a coworker’s annoying habits
  • Making false claims about unlawful activity at work

Because of the at-will employment doctrine and your company’s own policies, any of the above actions can legally result in negative consequences – including termination. It might seem unfair and even immoral, but as long as the employer is acting lawfully, fairness and morality aren’t apart of the equation.


In the opening scenario, we presented a situation where an employee believed they were fired for complaining about the morality of certain business decisions. In and of itself, speaking up about the morality of a business decision is not a protected activity because morality – to the dismay of some – isn’t a matter of law.

Had the employee spoken up about the issue from the perspective of believing the company was violating the law, then his or her actions could be protected by laws against workplace retaliation.

Still, though, a successful retaliation claim would require the dots between the employee’s termination and the past complaints be drawn in a straight line to demonstrate that one resulted in the other. In fact, the defenses most employers will build in retaliation lawsuits will do their best to disconnect a protected activity from an adverse employment decision.

Do You Need to Hold an Employer Accountable?

Workplace retaliation is a serious problem that should be addressed whenever it occurs. Employers have a vested interest in silencing employees who speak up against illegal wages practices, unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, discrimination, and more.

At Hoosier Law Firm, PLLC, however, we strive to help employees hold their employers accountable whenever illegal retaliation takes place. With our assistance, you can seek fair and just compensation among other legal remedies to get what you deserve after being unfairly treated at work.

Contact us online or call (800) 455-8721 if you think you have a valid retaliation claim.