The reality of retaliation in the workplace – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

A co-worker behaves badly, swears, shouts and calls people names. He is reported to the boss, and nothing happens. A supervisor in a non-profit harasses a direct report and obtains a coveted promotion anyway. These are only two examples of management’s process of circling the wagons, and seeking ways to avoid negative publicity and the cost that goes with it. As a result, people are reluctant to report bad behavior at work for fear of retaliation, and it’s no easy task to explain to the targets that covering up or suppressing these illegal practices is often completely acceptable in management circles.

In the case of the foul mouthed, tantrum prone, ill-tempered co-worker, the recipient of this conduct complained to the manager. Little did she know that the manager and the nasty co-worker were best friends. As a result, nothing was done. As time went on, the victim on the receiving end of the outbursts complained again, to the ethics department, who summarily conducted a formal investigation. The result? The offender was moved to a better office with walls up to the ceiling and a door instead of an open cubicle, and his target suddenly began to receive subpar performance reviews and was even placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP).

A campaign of gaslighting continued until she found a way out. It didn’t take long for her to seek a voluntary layoff and jump at leaving the company on her own terms. Here was a case of a hardworking performer, literally pushed out of the company, while the company did nothing to improve the objectionable behavior. Further exploration revealed that because the harassment involved use of sexually offensive language, the company wanted to avoid lawsuits at all costs. So, it was willing to sacrifice the complainer to stay out of court and avoid paying a settlement. And in doing so, the offender was rewarded with a perk reserved for higher level managers.

The story involving the harassing supervisor is similar. The worker, a client, was subject to the worst assignments, without the required amount of support. She juggled multiple tasks, working up to 80 hours a week, even including holidays.  Her efforts only generated more work for her, less free time, and did nothing to reduce the impact of the hostile work environment. The behavior was typical of bad bosses, lots of cursing, shouting, and in general, favoritism. The worker kept all this to herself, hoping that the supervisor would eventually go away. She avoided revealing her discomfort and stress levels. Finally, the bad boss was promoted, favored over other worthy candidates, and a new supervisor was hired.

My client was excited to report that the new boss had initiated an investigation of the complaints and was ready to make a report exposing her predecessor to upper management. My client felt relief that her previous bad boss’s behavior would be laid bare at last.  As a gentle warning. I related the story of the foul mouthed, ill-tempered co-worker who got away with similar behavior and the ultimate outcome. I suggested she moderate her enthusiasm because there were other outcomes than the one hoped for. She needed to be aware that the organization would protect itself at all costs to guard its reputation, to avoid payouts, and to stay out of court and be exposed as harboring a harasser.

And research shows that this approach is valid. A 2015 study by Software advise, showed that 68% of their respondents had a level of fear of retaliation when reporting a boss’s bad behavior. Also, according to Harvard Business Review, “Despite the high rates of …harassment …in many workplaces, reporting rates remain extremely low. This is in large part because employees fear that the company will respond to reports by further punishing or marginalizing the victim. The truth is that fewer than 30% of workers who experience any form of harassment report it, and less than 15% ever file legal action or make it to court, (according to the same HBR article.)

The same study showed that a startling 68% of harassment cases go unreported, the main reason given is fear of retaliation by the employer. Most people are unaware that retaliation is illegal, under federal law and is defined as “…punishment of an employee by an employer for engaging in legally protected activity, such as making a complaint of harassment to a governmental body or participating in workplace investigations. Retaliation can include any negative job action, such as demotion, discipline, firing, salary reduction, or job or shift reassignment” by the EEOC.

Think back to your own experiences of being harassed on the job, especially if you are part of a protected class. Did you make a complaint? Change jobs? Quit? Were you afraid to “rock the boat” or cause trouble? Were you afraid of being labeled? The law is on the side of the victims of harassment, but you must ask yourself, is the trouble worth it? Can you survive the gaslighting? You may never work in your industry again. But, again, how much can a person tolerate?

The decision to make a formal complaint must be carefully considered. Discussions with your spouse, close family and your legal team can offer the strength to make the right personal decision for you. Companies will go to great lengths to make you look bad or push you out, because they have a lot at stake. It’s fair to say that greed is the primary driver of tolerating bad behavior in the workplace. They have to keep Wall Street happy, so blaming the victim is standard operating procedure and keeps their hands “clean”.

“This fear [of retaliation] keeps employees silent even when instances of employment discrimination and employment rights violations are severe.”  – Shegarian & Associates


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.