Workplace Retaliation, and Why Complaints Are Good 16:33, March 23, 2017

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Workplace Retaliation, and Why Complaints Are Good

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No one likes a complainer, but it certainly beats the image of a workplace torn asunder by unhealthy anger, mass demotivation, chilled speech, workplace retaliation claims, toxic culture, and employees getting hurt (literally). Recent cases, research, and studies show the importance of employees airing their feelings and concerns in the workplace. 

The Complaint Dilemma and Anger

Research by two Temple University professors illustrates the dilemma that commonly arises when employees experience potential discrimination or harassment. In their article, Suppressed Anger, Retaliation Doctrine, and Workplace Culture, Professors Eisenstadt & Geddes describe three main scenarios that happen after experiencing possible workplace harassment or discrimination:

(1) Either employees speak up and get punished (with surprisingly little legal recourse),

(2) They don’t complain at all (fearing retaliation), or

(3) They complain outside the company via social media or government channels (the latter is known loosely as whistleblowing).

None of these workplace retaliation outcomes are ideal for the employee or the employer.

The three dilemmas create anger in employees. While experts focus on different types of anger in the workplace, suppressed anger is the most interesting. It involves “silent rage” where the employee holds in their sense of injustice and feeling wronged. Alternatively, suppressed anger can manifest in employees telling their peers but not those who should know (higher management or human resources). For example, during the National Park Service sexual harassment scandal a park ranger first complained to peers (but not through established channels) about a sexually harassing supervisor because she was afraid of retaliation. The National Park Service did a poor job of handling sexual harassment complaints by the ranger, as well as by other employees, which reflected a poor organizational culture.  

A Note on the Law and Culture

Most employers do not want to run afoul of the law, particularly if it means being charged with retaliation, harassment, or discrimination in violation of federal, state, or local laws. Some scrupulous employers may think that if employees are silent, then there’s no “protected activity” to worry about. No protected activity means no retaliation claims, which statistically account for 46% of all charges under all federal anti-discrimination statutes, and no misconduct to prevent and remedy. There are many legal barriers to claims of retaliation as well, according to Eisenstadt and Geddes.

However, this misses the point for many reasons. As we will see, not speaking up is tantamount to employees, and the workplace, getting hurt. Further, it misses the benefits of an ethical culture. Good ethics are good for business. Also, most employers care about the wellbeing of their employees. For this reason, it is important to learn hallmarks of effective ethics and compliance programs.

People Are Going to Get Hurt

Silent anger hurts. According to Eisenstadt and Geddes, “significant research” shows that hiding negative emotion like anger, especially when one wants to speak out, creates “detrimental cognitive, psychological, and physiological effects” in workers, such as humiliation, resentment, demoralization and physical problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

That’s in addition to the perceived or real harassment and discrimination that the forced silence only compounds. For example, according to a report of workplace harassment in 2016 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), harassment causes personal harm like “depression, general stress and anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and overall impaired psychological well-being.” The harms are real, studied, and documented.

A Workplace Torn Asunder

The damaging effects of silent anger are not limited to victims. Anger can spread from one victim to more workers who hear about the wrongful conduct or see it play out badly for the complainant. This “emotional contagion” negatively impacts the effectiveness of other workers and foments a “perception that the employer permits such discriminatory behavior, likely leading to more anger, more misconduct in the future, and eventually a culture permeated with bias and discontent,” according to Eisenstadt and Geddes.

As a result, studies have documented that other co-workers experience the declines in mental and physical well-being themselves. According to the EEOC, “the drivers of these effects can stem from empathy and worry for the victim, concern about the lack of fairness in their workplace, or fear of becoming the next target.” Like a gas leak, a single instance of wrongful conduct builds up over time and chokes the workplace.

How Employees Should Report

When employees air out their anger, they feel better. This can stop a disastrous chain of events. While Eisenstadt and Geddes recommend that employers hold “space” for employees to express their anger, it’s more likely that employers will rely on traditional forms of reporting.

In her post, Whistleblower Hotlines Might Not Be Enough, my colleague Chris Day analyzes the best forms of reporting. First, an employer should use “multiple reporting channels” like a live person (who can better handle an emotional conversation) and web reporting (which can be less intimidating and give the complainant time to articulate important details). An employer should also allow at least one form of anonymous reporting. Employees can be hesitant to report their concerns to begin with.

Finally, it ends with culture. “To eliminate the need for any whistleblowing, an organization must build a culture of trust” that supports whistleblowing. Employees should trust that an employer will take their complaints and concerns seriously, regardless of whether those complaints bring up possible legal claims, and address them promptly. If not, someone is going to get angry behind the scenes, dooming the workplace with or without reported claims of retaliation. 

LawRoom (powered by EverFi) delivers online training to help your business meet compliance requirements both dynamically and scalably. In addition to our award-winning online courses, LawRoom delivers a robust, cloud-based learning management system to help you easily deploy and track our growing library of ethics, anti-harassment, data security and employee conduct courses.

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Douglas Kelly
Douglas Kelly is EverFi's lead legal editor. He writes on corporate compliance and culture, analyzing new case law, legislation and regulations affecting US companies. Before joining EverFi, he litigated federal and state employment cases and wrote about legal trends. He earned his JD from Berkeley Law and BBA from Emory University.

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