Many laws protect against retaliation against employees for specific kinds of complaints, conduct and activities at work. The complaints, conduct and activities that are protected against workplace retaliation are called “protected activities.” These protected activities are defined by the statute, regulation or court decision creating the employee protection. An experienced employment attorney can identify whether you have engaged in protected activities at work. If you have requested a reasonable accommodation for a disability, suffered a workplace injury, requested or taken FMLA leave, complained about discrimination or sexual harassment, or attempted to enforce your employment rights by filing a Charge with the EEOC, you likely have engaged in protected activity for which your employer cannot retaliate against or punish you.
Let’s use Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an example. Under that law, employers may not target or retaliate against employees who have participated in proceedings to enforce the law, or opposed unlawful discrimination. The “participation” clause protects employees who file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC or who are witnesses, whether or not the charge has merit. The “opposition” clause forbids employers from punishing employees for expressing opposition to what they believe to be a legal violation. Opposition is protected where the employee has a reasonable and good faith belief that a violation of the law has occurred.
Protections attach the moment management first believes that an employee has engaged protected activity. Filing a grievance, contacting the news media, refusing to perform illegal assignments, telling your employer you plan to retain a lawyer, or to file a lawsuit, and other efforts to oppose violations of the law can all be protected. Many laws also protect employees who are assigned to safety, quality control or enforcement work. Working with an employment lawyer is the first step to understanding your legal rights.