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Explaining Employee Retaliation & How Can you Avoid It

In a perfect world, everyone would come to work in the morning (early!), faces adorned with big, joyful smiles, happy to see their colleagues and ready to start the day. All your employees would be friends, getting along beautifully, with flawless communication among them and everyone pulling together without a complaint to help the company be as successful as possible.

The reality, sadly, is different. Not everyone is going to get along all the time. Not every hire will be a great one; not every employee is going to work out the way you’d like. But it’s important to treat all employees with respect and decency, or else you might face a retaliation claim.

Employee retaliation is when someone who has been disciplined, written up, fired or otherwise dismissed argues they were targeted and treated badly based on a protected class status, including their sexual identity, background, ethnicity, gender or other identifying characteristics as defined under equal employment opportunity laws or other clauses. These are potentially dangerous situations for you, your reputation and your company and must always be handled carefully, even if the employee has no grounds upon which to stake their claim.

Here are ways to avoid retaliation claims when dismissing or disciplining employees.

Remind all employees that retaliation is prohibited by company policy.

If someone files a complaint about a manager or anyone within the company, make it clear right away that retaliation is unacceptable and can itself be a condition for dismissal. If one employee claims another has been harassing them, the employee about which the claim was filed cannot take action against the complainant or they might face discipline, up to and including having their position terminated. Most HR teams will make it clear in the employee handbook that there is a zero-tolerance policy against retaliation for any and all employees; if a claim is filed against anyone, it’s a good time to remind your team of this position.

Be cognizant of what retaliation might look like.

A negative response to a tense situation isn’t always as obvious as slamming doors closed or throwing papers around. It could be singling out a member of the team and giving them additional work to keep them busier than they should be. It could be freezing someone out on group projects or ignoring them during meetings. It could be subtle suggestions or threats of violence or acts of aggression. If you see something odd, or hear of an unusual interaction between employees, make a note of it and alert your HR team right away.

Be consistent in how employees are treated.

When a highly charged complaint is made, it’s important to respond to it in the way all previous complaints have been addressed. It’s also important to continue treating the employee who made the claim the same as you have been previously. Calling this kind of action to attention, positively or negatively, can create an uncomfortable and possibly hostile work environment for everyone. If you need to treat an employee differently, for any reason up to and including removing them from a team because they accused someone of retaliation or because they were the one doing the offensive behavior, make sure to notify HR and do everything above board and with justifications.

Work to improve communication across the board.

Your employees need to know they can come to you in stressful situations. They need to know you are willing to listen and will take their concerns and complaints seriously. You also have to be careful not to play favorites or appear to provide any preferential treatment, lest the bad cloud over your team starts to grow and spread. By offering an open door policy, or adopting other tactics and approaches that encourage your employees to speak up, you have to make it clear that you want to avoid problems and hurt feelings by listening to concerns before they become problems. You want to take a measured approach to any response you decide to give based on these interactions, both building trust among your employees and taking action without rushing into anything.

Take appropriate action and reinforce that retaliation is not and will not be tolerated.

Ultimately you do need to send a very clear message: What happened is not acceptable and any person found to be acting in retaliation to another employee is going to be addressed swiftly and definitively. If this means terminating an employee for their offense, that might require calling together a staff meeting to discuss not the particulars of the incident but the bottom line: Retaliation is unacceptable. Stress the proper steps to take when it comes to reporting retaliation but also spell out what retaliation can and does look like, in order to keep everyone on the same page. But keep an eye out — if a longtime member of a group is asked to leave due to their actions, their friends might try to take up their cause, thereby keeping the vicious cycle going.

Need new employees to keep your team working? Sterling Personnel can help!

Managing people can be difficult. Stressful situations are trying for everyone. As a manager, you need to keep a level head and do everything by the book, in order to prevent further issues from happening.

If you need to dismiss an employee, you’ll need to find another — Sterling Personnel is standing by to help make that transition a quick and easy one. We can help find candidates with the right background and skills your company needs, and we’ll vet any new applicants to make sure their outlook and ethical stances align with yours. When you’re ready to hire, call Sterling Personnel!