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Understanding workplace retaliation

One reason many women hesitate to move forward with sexual harassment claims is the fear of retaliation. While the law prohibits employers from penalizing employees for asserting their legal rights, including the right to be free of sexual harassment, many employers try to circumvent this prohibition.

Retaliation can be a separate cause of action and potentially result in additional damages. Knowing the signs so as to recognize them and document them can help you protect your rights in the workplace.

Watching out for red flags

The potential consequence that first comes to most people's mind is termination. These days, few employers would be so imprudent as to announce they are firing an employee for filing a harassment or discrimination claim. Instead, the tendency is to gradually build a case against the employee so her eventual termination can seem justifiable on the surface. 

If you filed a claim or otherwise acted to stop workplace harassment, you should be on the lookout for signs your employer is beginning to build a case against you. In some cases, bosses may invent or strongly exaggerate circumstances in order to justify a write-up or reprimand. It is important not to sign any document that in any way misrepresents what happened.

In other situations, an employer can set you up to fail in order to justify subsequent disciplinary action. Your boss will set a goal for you and make it impossible for you to meet it by taking away access to vital resources or other sabotage. 

Another common tactic is for the employer to suddenly become draconian about the exact enforcement of every single workplace rule, however minor, when it comes to you. The truth is that no employee is always completely perfect. People make mistakes. Usually, employers recognize this and will not penalize minor errors. Sometimes, there are rules in the workplace it is customary to ignore, with no or little consequences. Suddenly, you find your manager develops an eagle eye when it comes to any infraction you commit.

What you should do

It is important to document all retaliatory actions, no matter how minor. Follow up verbal conversations with confirmatory emails summarizing the conversation. When facing unrealistic goals, explain in writing why the task you must complete is impossible. You should also communicate with your attorney, who can give you additional strategic advice specific to your situation.

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