Employees who complain about alleged discrimination engage in what is commonly called “protected activity”—and that means they can’t be punished for doing so. Thus, it’s illegal to retaliate against an employee who goes to HR to report possible discrimination.
But what about employees who never come forward on their own, but who simply respond to a supervisor’s question about equal treatment? Are they also protected? The answer is “yes.”
Recent case: Deirdre Rhinehart had worked for the city of Gastonia as a police officer for 20 years.
Then she applied for a promotion to captain. A selection committee ranked Rhinehart fourth among the applicants, and eventually picked a man who was ranked higher on the basis of experience and education.
At the time, Rhinehart wasn’t upset about the missed promotion; she knew there would be other opportunities.
But then her supervisor called her into a meeting and asked her how she felt about the promotion process. She told him she thought the man who got the job had received preferential training earlier in his career that helped boost his experience. She said she thought that was unfair.
Rhinehart’s supervisor shared her concerns with the promoted captain, who had just become Rhinehart’s immediate supervisor. Within several months, Rhinehart was suspended and then terminated for alleged tardiness and other work problems. The new supervisor didn’t follow the city’spolicy.
Rhinehart sued, alleging retaliation for voicing concerns.
The city argued she hadn’t engaged in protected activity. The court disagreed, deciding that employees who allege discrimination when asked about such problems are just as protected as if they had taken the first step themselves. (Rhinehart v. City of Gastonia, No. 3:07-CV-541, WD NC, 2009)