So, You Think Your Boss is Retaliating Against You

Home / Conflict & Leadership / So, You Think Your Boss is Retaliating Against You


Other person: I think my boss may be retaliating against me.

Me: ↓↓↓↓………………….. (Yes, I said all of this!)

Is this problem really retaliation? 

To begin, you should be careful about the language that you use to describe what’s going on. By retaliation, do you mean that they are curt, and less friendly or do you mean that they taking actions that will impact your job, like giving you a negative performance evaluation, cutting your hours, or trumping up unfounded disciplinary charges? The difference matters A LOT! In order for the behavior to count as retaliation it has to have the effect of discouraging a reasonable employee from participating in protected activity. Protected activity is exercising your rights, i.e., filing a harassment complaint, being a witness in an EEO investigation, being a whistle blower, etc. Finally, you can’t claim retaliation if you haven’t participated in a protected activity or if your employer doesn’t know that you have. If you’re being treated poorly “just because”, and it does happen, your boss just might be a jerk.

If your concern is about behavior where negative actions are being taken against you, ask yourself some questions. First, if the action taken against you is part of a progressive discipline process that has been ongoing or was initiated before the behavior that you believe triggered the retaliatory behavior, what makes you think what you are experiencing is retaliation? Employers do have a right to manage their workplaces. If your performance has been problematic for a while, your triggering event doesn’t stop the progressive discipline process, even if it makes things more complicated. Second, if your organization has clear business needs, you may not be able to prove that you’ve been discriminated against. For example, if your hours are reduced or if you’re transferred to a different location or shift, your employer may be able to prove that it was simply a business decision. If it was, you may not like it, but it’s not wrong.

Okay, it is retaliation!

So, lets say that you’re sure you’re being discriminated against; here are some tips:

1. Ask yourself how much you really value the job: do you really want to go to war for a job that you don’t want? It may be easier to dust off your resume and update your LinkedIn profile. How closely aligned is the job with your career goals and values? It may be more sensible for you to fight back with your exit. Be advised that if you decide to go the EEOC (or your State version of the EEOC) route, just know that those processes are NOT quick solutions to your problems. Sidebar: because you never know when you’ll want to exit an organization quickly, this is also a word to the wise about continuously networking and building relationships. I often recommend that people identify, within the first 3 – 6 months of starting a new job, individuals to go after to build relationships with BECAUSE THESE INDIVIDUALS CAN BE REFERENCES WHEN YOU LEAVE alongside being a great colleague or leader.

2. Maintain your own documentation: keep track of the behavior that you’re complaining about, including how often does it happen, who witnessed it, where did it occur, did you tell anybody, and what was taking place at the time? By the same token, identify and document patterns of behavior that you think substantiate your complaint, including patterns that may involve other employees.

3. Don’t fight fire with fire. Sometimes people aren’t intentional about retaliation (this isn’t meant as justification). They may not recognize how they are coming across. So, talk to HR. Ask HR. If you have a union rep, ask them to talk to your boss or, possibly, help you to file a grievance. Here are some strategies to consider when planning for a difficult conversation: If you have conflict with your boss or a team member, but you know it’s not retaliation, ask HR to mediate a conversation between you and your supervisor. Avoiding problems NEVER works.

4. If you talk to your boss and/or HR and you’re unhappy with how your situation is handled or resolved, refer to your organization’s employee manual to figure out who you should talk to when you need to go around your boss and HR. Many handbooks will tell you precisely who to go to for escalation or they will say HR. If you can’t go either of those offices, seek out someone in a formal leadership role above them. That leader has an obligation to make sure something is done.

5. If you have a mentor or sponsor, talk to them about what is happening to you. Ask them for advice about how to navigate your organization’s culture. Heads up: if your mentor or sponsor is in a supervisory/management role, they have a duty to report what you tell them. So, telling them is not about keeping it quiet. This is about assistance, strategy, and making the behavior stop.

Be Blameless and Don’t Play Games

6. Make sure you’re adhering to the “covereth thine behind” principle. Don’t give your supervisor a reason to discipline you. Yes, you can argue that such is giving in to retaliation; however, there’s another reality to consider. It’s a lose/lose to try to prove that your organization regularly accepts mediocre work and doesn’t hold people accountable or that your flub up should’ve been overlooked. Arguing that the punishment you receive is too harsh is a different matter and such an argument could be credible. But, again, do you really want it to be known that you messed up something, especially if it was a function of carelessness?

7. Don’t ever use retaliation as a cover for behaviors and issues where you know retaliation really isn’t the issue. Even if you prevail in these situations, your conscious should and will eat you alive.

Leave a Comment