Retaliation can be anything that would dissuade a reasonable employee from reporting alleged wrongdoing—such as harassment or discrimination—in the first place. And it doesn’t just apply to direct punishment against an employee.
It can even be an employer’s action that targets an employee’s co-workers or associates.
Your best defense against charges of retaliation is simply to make sure every discharge, demotion or other adverse employment action is based on a legitimate business reason.
Recent case: Earnest and Jamil became part-time firefighters for the village of Lincoln Heights, Ohio. They were appointed through the efforts of a friend who was the chief of the fire department.
The chief wound up filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against the village manager.
Around the same time, Earnest and Jamil learned they would have to become certified as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), a designation that required taking several training courses.
They didn’t sign up for the first round of classes, thinking they could wait a year. When the village manager found out, she told the fire chief to terminate Earnest and Jamil.
He did, but believed the village manager was motivated by a desire to humiliate him in retaliation for charging her with sexual harassment.
Earnest and Jamil filed suit against the village, alleging that they were the victims of the manager’s effort to retaliate against the chief.
The court said their lawsuit would have had a chance if they could prove that the village manager’s motive was retaliation and that a reasonable employee would not have complained about the alleged sexual harassment if he knew he would have to fire his friends as a result.
However, in this case, the village prevailed. It was able to show that there was a legitimate reason to discharge the firefighters—namely their delay in taking courses to earn their EMT certifications, which were needed for the department to function efficiently on fire and medical calls. (McCowen, et al., v. Village of Lincoln Heights, No. 15-3040, 6th Cir., 2015)