There are no magic words an employee has to utter in order to engage in protected activity. As long as what he says would lead a reasonable person to conclude he’s complaining about some form of discrimination, he has protection from retaliation.
Recent case: Xu-Shen, an instructor at the State University of New York Institute of Technology, sued when his contract was not renewed. He alleged retaliation for having reported that his supervisor was trying to force Asian professors to fraudulently credit co-workers on academic publications in exchange for better.
The university said Xu-Shen had never claimed his complaint was about discrimination.
But the court said he didn’t have to use the word “discrimination” as long as what he described could reasonably be construed as discriminatory behavior. (Zhou v. State University of New York, No. 11-4370, 2nd Cir., 2012)