All California employees are entitled to protection against unlawful workplace retaliation.
Forms of Retaliation – Adverse Employment Actions
An adverse employment action can occur in various forms, including:
- Disciplinary action;
- Reduction in pay;
- Reduction in hours;
- Unfavorable changes in job location or work shifts;
- Increased work responsibilities;
- Negative performance evaluations;
- Being denied access to training opportunities.
Both California and federal laws protect employees from retaliation for participating in “protected activities.” These include:
- Whistleblowing about an illegal activity in the workplace;
- Reporting harassment or discrimination in the workplace;
- Requesting or taking medical leave of absence;
- Participating in investigations within the workplace
California Labor Code Labor Code section 1102.5 provides powerful whistleblower protections to employees. This law prevents employers from punishing employees (1) who refuse to engage in an illegal activity at work, (2) who report the employer’s unlawful action(s) either internally (to management or Human Resources) or externally (to the relevant government agency), or (3) who have family members who have reported such issues.
Examples of Workplace Retaliation
- Whistleblower Retaliation :An employee witnesses her manager engaging in fraudulent activities, such as inflating sales numbers to deceive stakeholders. Concerned about the illegal practices, the employee reports the misconduct to higher management and relevant authorities. In response, the employer demotes her, reduces her hours, or takes other adverse actions in retaliation for her whistleblowing.
- Reporting Workplace Safety Violations: An employee who is a factory worker notices that the company has been cutting corners on safety measures to increase production output. Worried about potential accidents and injuries, the employee reports these violations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). As a result, the employer fires the employee, citing unrelated reasons, which seems suspicious given the timing of the termination.
- Disclosing Unlawful Business Practices: An employee in the accounting department discovers that the company is engaging in tax evasion and fraudulent financial reporting. Fearful of being implicated, the employee anonymously reports the violations to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The employer conducts an internal investigation and identifies the employee as the whistleblower, and thereafter the employer terminates the employee.
- Participating in a Discrimination Investigation: An submits files a complaint of workplace discrimination with the Human Resources department. As part of their investigation, HR interviews several employees, including the employee who submitted the complaint. Following the investigation, the employer punishes this employee by giving him undesirable assignments, transferring him to a less favorable position, or denying him promotions as a form of retaliation for initiating and participating in the investigation.
- Refusing to Engage in Unlawful Activities: A sales representative employee is instructed by his manager to provide false information to clients regarding the company’s products/services to boost sales. The employee refuses to comply because he believes it is unethical and potentially illegal. In response, the employer terminates the employee’s employment for supposed performance issues.
- Exercising Rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): An employee takes a medical leave of absence to care for her seriously ill parent. Upon returning to work, the employer denies the employee her previous position or a similar position and instead offers a lower-paying job or a job with less responsibility, citing budgetary reasons or restructuring. In reality, the employer's actions were motivated by the employee’s exercising her right to take a medical leave of absence.
- Unpaid Overtime Complaint: In a retail store, a cashier notices that he has consistently been asked to work off-the-clock to finish closing duties, which leads to unpaid overtime hours. The cashier raises the issue with his store manager, but instead of addressing the concern, the manager reduces the cashier's working hours, cutting his income as retaliation for speaking up.
- Reporting Unsafe Working Conditions: A retail store employee notices that the store management is ignoring safety hazards in the store, such as exposed electrical wires and slippery floors. Concerned about their safety and the safety of customers, the employee files a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In response, the store manager starts scheduling the employee for fewer shifts, claiming a reduction in business, which is a form of retaliation for reporting the unsafe working conditions.
- Whistleblowing on Environmental Violations: An hourly worker in a manufacturing plant witnesses the improper disposal of hazardous waste, which is a violation of environmental regulations. The worker reports the violation to the appropriate environmental agency. Soon after, the worker’s supervisor starts assigning him to physically demanding tasks beyond his usual duties, creating a hostile work environment in retaliation for the whistleblower’s actions.
- Requesting Meal and Rest Breaks: Hourly employees in a manufacturing facility notice that they are often denied legally mandated meal breaks and rest breaks. Several employees gather and request the employer to comply with California labor laws. In response, the employer starts giving these employees unfavorable work shifts, taking away opportunities for overtime, or assigning them to monotonous and less desirable tasks as a way to punish them for asserting their rights.
- Complaining About Unsafe Equipment: In a manufacturing setting, an hourly employee raises concerns about defective machinery and inadequate safety measures, which put employees at risk of workplace accidents. The employer dismisses the employee’s complaints and makes their work environment uncomfortable by reprimanding them publicly and threatening to fire them if they continue to question the company’s practices.
Reporting Wage Theft: Several hourly workers at a manufacturing plant notice that their pay stubs do not accurately reflect the hours they have worked, resulting in wage theft. They bring this to the attention of their supervisor, who dismisses their concerns and retaliates by reducing their working hours or unfairly disciplining them for minor infractions that were previously overlooked.