Sometimes managers want to handle problems themselves and not involve the HR department or others in the chain of command. But telling employees to keep quiet and not complain to higher-ups actually may amount to retaliation.
Threats and warnings, standing alone with no actual consequences, may be “materially adverse employment actions” when retaliation is the charge.
Recent case: Nancy Highwood, who is white, worked for the Indiana State Police. She got into a shouting match with another Indiana State Police employee, who is black. The black employee insisted white employees had no idea what discrimination was all about. Highwood complained to a supervisor.
The supervisor held a meeting and said, “What goes on here, stays here. Do not take this down to Indianapolis. You do not take it anywhere.” Highwood perceived that as a threat and complained anyway.
Then she retired because she claimed she was working in a racially hostile environment. She sued for retaliation and discrimination. The court said she was entitled to a trial on retaliation but dismissed her race discrimination case. (Highwood v. Indiana State Police, No. 2:06-CV-180, ND IN, 2007)
Final note: Do nothing to dissuade anyone from using your internal complaint process. The complaint often will amount to nothing. But trying to brush the whole thing under the rug is a big mistake—one that fairly invites employees to file a retaliation lawsuit.