My employer retaliated against me. Isn't that unlawful?
Maybe. It depends on the type and nature of the retaliatory action and the reason for it. Not all retaliation is unlawful.
There are various laws prohibiting retaliation for exercising one’s rights, and protections for “whistleblowing.” Most have the following in common:
The employee must show:
(1) that s/he engaged in conduct that is “protected” by some law, and
(2) that because of such protected conduct
(3) s/he suffered an “adverse” action (such as termination).
The laws protecting employees from retaliation vary in many ways, including: which employees are covered; which employers are covered; what is considered “protected conduct”; where to file a case; how to prove the case; filing deadlines, available remedies. These cases can get complicated, so we recommend consulting with legal counsel, when possible.
Here are some examples of what might be considered unlawful retaliation:
Bill files a complaint for age discrimination at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Shortly afterward, he is fired. If he can prove that he was fired because of his age discrimination complaint, he might have a retaliation case against his employer under the age discrimination law(s).
Ana complains to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office that she was not getting paid her wages. Her employer then reduces her hours. If Ana can prove her hours were reduced because of her wage complaint, she might have a retaliation claim against her employer under the wage law.
Sam and Joanne are trying to form a union in their factory. Their boss finds out and fires them. If Sam and Joanne can prove that they were fired because of their union activities, they might have a claim against their employer under the National Labor Relations Act.
Marie reports unlawful conduct to government authorities and is then fired. If Mary can prove she was fired because of her report, then depending on what she reported, how she reported it, and where she reported it, she might have a claim under one of the various whistleblower laws.
Here is an example of retaliatory conduct that will probably not amount to a viable legal claim:
Sue’s boss is very demanding and rude to all of his employees. He is unrealistic about expectations and has threatened to fire Sue if she does not improve her performance. She complains to human resources, and explains how she is being evaluated unfairly, but nothing improves. Her boss finds out that Sue went to HR and now makes her job even more difficult. She is then fired, supposedly for poor performance. Sue probably does not have a viable legal complaint. Complaining of an unfair, bullying boss is not usually protected by law (unless it fits into some other category, such as discriminatory harassment). Learn more about bullying and harassment here.
For more information about some whistleblower laws:
Federal whistleblower laws (including Occupational/Environmental/Nuclear Safety Laws; Transportation Industry Laws; Consumer and Investor Protection Laws)
Federal False Claims Act
Massachusetts False Claims Act
Massachusetts state whistleblower protection for public employees
Massachusetts state protection from retaliatory action by health care facilities