All retaliation is unfair treatment in the workplace, but not all unfair treatment is retaliation. The primary difference between retaliation and unfair treatment in the California workplace is the presence of unlawful conduct. Unfair treatment, although often morally reprehensible, is not always illegal. On the other hand, retaliation against an employee always has legal consequences for an employer.

With a clear understanding of the difference between unfair treatment and retaliation, you can protect your rights in the workplace and have a better idea of when you have recourse against your employer for unlawful conduct. Below, we delve deeper into the idea of unfair treatment in the California workplace, specifically outlining when unfair treatment crosses the line into unlawful contact. Then, we take a closer look at the different scenarios that might prompt an employer to retaliate against employees in the California workplace.

What Is Unfair Treatment in the Workplace?

At some point in your employment history, you’ve likely experienced unfair treatment at your workplace. Maybe you didn’t get the promotion you deserved because of office politics or your boss played favorites. Nepotism—privileging family members—is another common occurrence in some workplaces. Unfair treatment can also include supervisors and managers who verbally abuse employees by yelling or screaming or falsely accusing employees of violating company policies.

Although the above examples result in frustration and sometimes anger for employees, unfair treatment is not illegal. California is an ‘at-will‘ employment state. At-will employment is a legal description of the relationship between an employer and an employee. In at-will employment states, employers can terminate an employee at any time without reason and an employee can leave a job for no reason; neither party has legal consequences. Additionally, employers can also demote, transfer, and discipline an employee without legal consequences.

Yet, even in employment-at-will states, like California, employers cannot take adverse action against an employee for illegal reasons. In these cases, unfair treatment becomes unlawful conduct.

When Does Unfair Treatment in a California Workplace Become Unlawful Conduct?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects all workers in the United States from discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. The United States Supreme Court extended the law to protect gay, lesbian, and transgender workers in June 2020. Further, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers throughout the nation from discrimination based on disability. California employers that discriminate against employees and treat them unfairly based on the above protections are engaged in unlawful conduct.

Additionally, California employees have the right to file a complaint when their employers are breaking the law when they treat them unfairly. Federal law also protects employees who need to take time off for family or medical reasons under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) protects federal workers in California who report illegal activities in the workplace. In some cases, employers choose to retaliate against workers whose absence falls under FMLA. Similarly, federal employers sometimes retaliate against whistleblowers.

What Is Retaliation?

On a broad level, retaliation refers to the notion of taking revenge against someone for actions that have harmed you or actions of which you don’t approve. In legal terms, retaliation specifically refers to the unlawful and unfair treatment of employees as a response to a protected action. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers are engaging in unlawful conduct when they retaliate against employees for:

  • Filing an EEO complaint or lawsuit against an employer
  • Talking with management about discrimination or harassment
  • Cooperating with an investigation about harassment or discrimination
  • Refusing to follow orders that result in discrimination
  • Refusing sexual advances
  • Intervening to protect other employees from harassment
  • Requesting accommodations for religious reasons or for a disability

Whistleblowers also have protection from retaliation and employers cannot discriminate or take unlawful action against an employee who needed time away from work under FMLA.

Filing a Claim Against Your Employer for Unlawful Discrimination or Retaliation

You do not need a lawyer to file a claim against your employer; however, it’s often in your best interest. A lawyer can file a claim on your behalf, protecting your identity. This is especially important for sexual harassment claims and whistleblower claims. Employers, especially specifically targeted members of an organization, can take drastic measures when they feel desperate. An experienced attorney knows the ins and outs of the EEOC claims process and can ensure your meet required deadlines and fulfill criteria.

As a California resident, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), the state equivalent of the EEOC. DFEH will automatically share information with the EEOC, so you need not report to both agencies. If you are a federal whistleblower or have suffered retaliation as a whistleblower, you must file with the EEOC because the State of California does not have jurisdiction over your claim. Regardless of the situation, you cannot file a lawsuit against your employer before your file a claim with the EEOC. You can begin an  EEOC claim online and make an appointment or you can file a claim with a state or local agency like DFEH.

Contact an Experienced Employment Attorney If You’ve Been a Victim of Unlawful Conduct in a California Workplace

The skilled legal team at Perkins Asbill have the knowledge and resources to advocate for employees who have been victims of unlawful conduct in a California workplace. If your employer has illegally discriminated against you, sexually harassed you, or retaliated against you for taking action against them, you need a competent and diligent lawyer in your corner.

At Perkins Asbill, A Professional Law Corporation, we take pride in client service and holding employers accountable for their illegal practices. Contact us today online or at 916-446-2000 for a confidential case evaluation to determine your eligibility for compensation and learn the best way forward for your individual circumstances.