Each of the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws prohibits retaliation and related conduct: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act (Rehabilitation Act), the Equal Pay Act (EPA), and Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).
On August 29, 2016, the EEOC issued its Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues, https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/retaliation-guidance.cfm, a sub-regulatory document that provides the EEOC's interpretation of the law on this topic. The Enforcement Guidance replaces the Compliance Manual Section 8: Retaliation (1998).
The following questions and answers address major points from the guidance. A short Small Business Fact Sheet on this topic is available at https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/retaliation-factsheet.cfm.
1. What is retaliation?
Retaliation occurs when an employer takes a materially adverse action because an applicant or employee asserts rights protected by the EEO laws. Asserting EEO rights is called "protected activity."
Sometimes there is retaliation before any "protected activity" occurs. For example, an employment policy itself could be unlawful if it discourages the exercise of EEO rights.
2. What must someone show to prove a legal claim of retaliation?
In a case alleging that an employer took a materially adverse action because of protected activity, legal proof of retaliation requires evidence that:
3. What type of EEO activity by an applicant or employee is protected from retaliation?
Generally, "protected activity" is either participating in an EEO process or reasonably opposing conduct made unlawful by an EEO law.
4. What does it mean to "participate in an EEO process"?
An employer must not retaliate against an individual for "participating" in an EEO process. This means that an employer cannot punish an applicant or employee for filing an EEO complaint, serving as a witness, or participating in any other way in an EEO matter, even if the underlying discrimination allegation is unsuccessful or untimely. EEOC's view is that this extends to participation in an employer's internal EEO complaint process, even if a charge of discrimination has not yet been filed with the EEOC.
Participation in the EEO process is protected whether or not the EEO allegation is based on a reasonable, good faith belief that a violation occurred. This does not mean that falsehoods or bad faith are without consequence. An employer is free to bring these to light in the EEO matter, where it may rightly affect the outcome. But it is unlawful retaliation for an employer to take matters into its own hands and impose consequences for participating in an EEO matter.
5. What does it mean to "oppose" conduct made unlawful by an EEO law?
Employers must not retaliate against an individual for "opposing" a perceived unlawful EEO practice. This means that an employer must not punish an applicant or employee for communicating opposition to a perceived EEO violation. For example, it is unlawful to retaliate against an applicant or employee for:
Opposition can be protected even if it is informal or does not include the words "harassment," "discrimination," or other legal terminology. A communication or act is protected opposition as long as the circumstances show that the individual is conveying resistance to a perceived potential EEO violation.
The protection for opposition is limited to those individuals who act with a reasonable good faith belief that the conduct opposed is unlawful or could become unlawful if repeated. In the EEOC's view, it can be reasonable to complain about behavior that is not yet legally harassment (i.e., even if the mistreatment has not yet become severe or pervasive). It is also reasonable for an employee to believe that conduct violates the EEO laws if the EEOC has adopted that interpretation, even if some courts disagree with the EEOC on the issue.
Opposition also must be conducted in a reasonable manner. For example, threats of violence, or badgering a subordinate employee to give a witness statement, are not protected opposition.
6. Who is protected from retaliation?
The protections against retaliation apply to all employees of any employer, employment agency, or labor organization covered by the EEO laws. This includes applicants, current employees (full-time, part-time, probationary, seasonal, and temporary), and former employees. For example, a supervisor cannot refuse to hire an applicant because of his EEO complaint against a prior employer, or give a false negative job reference to punish a former employee for making an EEO complaint.
These protections apply regardless of an applicant or employee's citizenship or work authorization status, because the EEO laws protect applicants and employees regardless of citizenship or work authorization. For example, assume an employer suspects a worker is undocumented but does not attempt to verify her authorization to work as required by the immigration laws. If the worker raises an EEO complaint, such as sexual harassment or national origin discrimination, and the employer then threatens to expose the worker's immigration status as punishment for complaining about EEO violations, the employer would violate the ban on retaliation.
7. Are employees shielded from the consequences of poor performance or misconduct if they raise an internal EEO allegation or file a discrimination claim with an enforcement agency?
No. Neither participation nor opposition give permission to an employee to neglect job duties, violate employer rules, or do anything else that would otherwise result in consequences for poor performance evaluations or misconduct. Even though the anti-retaliation laws are very broad, employers remain free to discipline or terminate employees for poor performance or improper behavior, even if the employee made an EEO complaint. Whether an employer's action was motivated by legitimate reasons or retaliation will depend on the facts of the case.
If a manager recommends an adverse action in the wake of an employee's filing of an EEOC charge or other protected activity, the employer may reduce the chance of potential retaliation by independently evaluating whether the adverse action is appropriate.
8. When is an employer action serious enough to be retaliation?
Retaliation includes any employer action that is "materially adverse." This means any action that might deter a reasonable person from engaging in protected activity.
"Materially adverse" actions include more than employment actions such as denial of promotion, non-hire, denial of job benefits, demotion, suspension, discharge, or other actions that can be challenged directly as employment discrimination. Retaliation can be an employer action that is work-related, or one that has no tangible effect on employment, or even an action that takes place exclusively outside of work, as long as it may well dissuade a reasonable person from engaging in protected activity.
Whether an action is materially adverse depends on the facts and circumstances of the particular case. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that transferring a worker to a harder, dirtier job within the same pay grade, and suspending her without pay for more than a month (even though the pay was later reimbursed) were both "materially adverse actions" that could be challenged as retaliation. The Supreme Court has also said that actionable retaliation includes: the FBI's refusing to investigate death threats against an agent; the filing of false criminal charges against a former employee; changing the work schedule of a parent who has caretaking responsibilities for school-age children; and excluding an employee from a weekly training lunch that contributes to professional advancement.
By contrast, a petty slight, minor annoyance, trivial punishment, or any other action that is not likely to dissuade an employee from engaging in protected activity in the circumstances is not "materially adverse." For example, courts have concluded on the facts of given cases that temporarily transferring an employee from an office to a cubicle was not a materially adverse action and that occasional brief delays by an employer in issuing refund checks to an employee that involved small amounts of money were not materially adverse.
9. What are some other examples of employer actions that may be actionable as retaliation?
The facts and circumstances of each case determine whether a particular action is retaliatory in that context. For this reason, the same action may be retaliatory in one case but not in another. Depending on the facts, examples of "materially adverse" actions may include:
10. Can an action be materially adverse even if it does not stop the employee from asserting her EEO rights?
Yes. If the employer's action would be reasonably likely to deter protected activity, it can be challenged as retaliation even if it does not actually stop the employee in a particular case from asserting her EEO rights. An employer can also be liable for retaliation if the materially adverse action does not harm the employee; the extent of the harm only affects the amount of relief the individual might be awarded as compensation.
11. Are employees protected against retaliation when they complain about conduct that affects others but does not affect themselves?
Yes. It is unlawful to take an action against employees because they have complained about discrimination that affects other people. It does not matter whether the person is a witness regarding an EEO complaint brought by others, or whether the person is complaining of conduct that directly affects himself.
12. Is it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against someone by taking action against a family member or close friend?
Yes. If an employer takes an action against someone else, such as a family member or close friend, in order to retaliate against an employee, both individuals would have a legal claim against the employer.
13. Do the EEO laws or other statutes protect employee communications about pay?
Yes. Taking adverse action for discussing compensation may implicate a number of different federal laws, whether the action is pursuant to a so-called "pay secrecy" policy or is simply discipline of an employee in an individual case.
Under EEOC-enforced laws, when an employee communicates to management or coworkers to complain or ask about compensation, or otherwise discusses rates of pay, the communication may constitute protected opposition under the EEO laws, making employer retaliation actionable based upon the facts of a given case. Moreover, talking to coworkers to gather information or evidence in support of a potential EEO claim is protected opposition, provided the manner of opposition is reasonable.
In addition, there are also other federal protections for discussions related to compensation. For example, under Executive Order (E.O.) 11246, as amended by E.O. 13665 (Apr. 8, 2014), enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, federal contractors and subcontractors are prohibited from discharging or otherwise discriminating in any way against employees or applicants who inquire about, discuss, or disclose their compensation or that of other employees or applicants. See https://www.dol.gov/ofccp/. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Act protects non-supervisory employees who are covered by that law from employer retaliation when they discuss their wages or working conditions with their colleagues as part of a concerted activity, even if there is no union or other formal organization involved in the effort. See https://www.nlrb.gov/.
14. Who must prove retaliation?
In order for the employee to prevail in demonstrating a violation, the evidence must show that it is more likely than not that retaliation has occurred. It is not the employer's burden to disprove the claim.
15. What is the legal standard for proving that retaliation caused a materially adverse action?
There are different causation standards for proving retaliation, depending on the type of claim and the employer.
16. What types of evidence may support a claim of retaliation?
In some cases, the employer's own statements may acknowledge or betray its intention to deter an applicant or employee from engaging in protected activity. However, in many cases, there are different pieces of evidence, either alone or together, that may support an inference that retaliation caused a materially adverse action. Examples include:
17. What if the employer claims its challenged action was not motivated by retaliation?
In many cases, an employer will present a non-retaliatory reason for the challenged action. The employer may assert that it acted for a legitimate and unrelated reason such as poor job performance, misconduct, or the individual's lack of qualifications for the job. An employee may respond to these assertions by providing evidence that the employer's explanation is actually a pretext for retaliation. If an employer's explanation is shown to be false, a factfinder may infer retaliation.
18. What are examples of evidence that may support the employer's assertion that it was not motivated by retaliation?
Even if protected activity and a materially adverse action occurred, evidence of any of the following facts, alone or in combination, may undermine a claimant's ability to prove it was caused by retaliation. For example:
19. What is "interference" with disability rights under the ADA?
The ADA prohibits not only retaliation but also "interference" with statutory rights. Interference is broader than retaliation. Under the ADA's interference provision, it is unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or otherwise interfere with an individual's exercise of ADA rights, or with an individual who is assisting another to exercise ADA rights. Some employer acts may be both retaliation and interference, or may overlap with unlawful denial of accommodation. Examples of interference include:
A threat does not have to be carried out in order to violate the interference provision, and an individual does not actually have to be deterred from exercising or enjoying ADA rights in order for the interference to be actionable.
20. What remedies are available if retaliation is found?
There is a range of relief available in a retaliation case:
Preliminary relief. The EEOC has the authority to sue for temporary or preliminary relief while completing its processing of a retaliation charge. This asks the court to stop retaliation before it occurs or continues.
Compensatory and punitive damages. Money damages are paid to compensate the victim and to punish the employer for retaliation. However, punitive damages are only available against private employers, not against the government.
Other Relief. Under all the statutes enforced by the EEOC, relief may also include equitable relief such as back pay, front pay, or reinstatement into a job. The Commission also seeks changes in employer policies and procedures, managerial training, reporting to the Commission, and other measures designed to prevent violations and promote future compliance with the law.
21. Did the Commission obtain public input before issuing the Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues?
Yes. The Commission published a proposed draft of the guidance for public input on January 21, 2016, as a means to gather stakeholder feedback. The Commission's final approved guidance takes into account the feedback received on the draft from approximately 60 organizations and individuals representing a wide range of viewpoints. In preparing the final guidance, the Commission considered all submissions, as well as the stakeholder views expressed at the June 17, 2015 Commission Meeting held on this topic.
22. Are there promising practices that may be implemented to reduce the incidence of retaliation?
Although each workplace is different, there are many different types of promising policy, training, and organizational changes that employers may wish to consider to minimize the likelihood of retaliation violations. Some promising practices include:
23. How can a job applicant or employee report retaliation or interference?
An applicant or employee who believes his rights under federal EEO laws have been violated may file a complaint:
Private sector and state/local government employees may file a charge of discrimination by contacting the EEOC at 1-800-669-4000 or go to https://www.eeoc.gov/employees/howtofile.cfm.
Federal government employees may initiate the complaint process by contacting an EEO counselor at your agency; more information is available at https://www.eeoc.gov/federal/fed_employees/complaint_overview.cfm.
24. Where can employers obtain compliance assistance or more information?
For more information, visit https://www.eeoc.gov/, call the EEOC at 800-669-4000 (voice) or 800-669-6820 (TTY), or contact your local EEOC office (a listing is available at https://www.eeoc.gov/field/index.cfm). Ask for translation assistance if needed.