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Employers shouldn't retaliate against their workers. It's bad for business. In many contexts, it's also illegal. For example, employers cannot retaliate when workers complain about protected activity.
Proving that you were penalized for making a complaint (or for whistleblowing) can be difficult because you must show a connection between your actions and your boss's reaction. You must have actual evidence that the employer retaliated as a consequence of you speaking out.
Three Essential Elements to Prove Retaliation
Here are the three elements that must be shown to prove retaliation:
Show Consequence, Not Coincidence
Demonstrating the connection between an employee's protected activity and punishment is often the most difficult part of a retaliation claim. The connection may be established by both direct and circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence includes written or verbal statements that an employee was fired for engaging in a protected activity. Circumstantial evidence infers punishment based on timing and other circumstances.
If your whole team is terminated and you were the only person who complained about discrimination, it will be hard to prove that you were dismissed as punishment. Similarly, if you find yourself materially adversely acted upon but the explicit complaints about you are unrelated to your protected activity, it may not be retaliation even if it looks and feels like punishment.
Putting It All Together
Workers who speak out are protected by US laws, both state and federal. But not all activity is protected and not all adverse action is considered punishment for complaint. Speak to an attorney who can help you sort through your case.
To show retaliation you will need to apply all three factors listed above and show how they work together. If you can show that you were engaged in protected activity, your employer took adverse action, and that the boss did this because you spoke up, you will prove retaliation and recover damages.