Retaliation in the workplace refers to an employee being punished for performing a legal action. When an individual takes adverse action against another worker for exercising their right, it can also count as discrimination and harassment. Retaliation in the workplace usually follows after an investigation if the process has not reached the preferred outcome. Employers should discourage any retaliation after an investigation ends as it can negatively impact the workplace in many ways. Retaliation in the workplace is usually the result of an employee fighting back after being wrongfully accused of an action they did not commit.

Negative consequences of retaliation in the workplace

Retaliation in the workplace has almost doubled in the last 20 years. The number of retaliation complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has increased from 22,257 in 2001 to 34,332 in 2021. Retaliation in the workplace does not have to be between employees. It may be between an employee and their employer or another higher-up member of the organisation. 

While the severity can vary, the consequences are usually similar. Retaliation in the workplace causes staff retention rates to fall as the work culture is being negatively influenced. Gossip and rumours thrive in places where there is staff hostility and no action is taken to prevent it. Higher staff turnover means that the company has to spend more resources on finding and training staff. This not only causes costs to arise but it also means that the company is going on longer periods of time with staff that are not familiar with the organisation and its product or services. New workers take a while to catch up with everything and this could potentially slow down operations and overall productivity.

On top of that, retaliation in the workplace can lead to legal action. Retaliation is many times the result of a complaint or an unfavourable outcome of an investigation. If the investigation is inconclusive, the employee can use that as an excuse to harass the victim if they filed a complaint against them and then seek a lawsuit against the company for potentially ruining their reputation. Emotions are usually driving the retaliation which may mean that the worker is not considering all of their options.

Retaliation can divide the workplace. A lot of the time, the victims of retaliation are women who are less likely to speak up due to fear of the situation worsening. Especially in an employer-to-employee case, retaliation can include demotion, termination and change of working arrangements. Victims do not speak up to keep a level of normalcy in their lives but this decreases their morale and commitment to the company which means lower loyalty and lower quality output.

If the workplace is divided and employees are afraid to report an incident, overall teamwork and collaboration decrease which can affect the performance of the business. Further, you will be blind to any issues in your business as all your employees will be afraid to speak up.

Why does retaliation in the workplace happen?

During an investigation, the accused and the accuser are both in a vulnerable situation. Either of them could end up unhappy once the process is over and this is usually when retaliation occurs. Employees may feel that as a result of the investigation:

  • Their relationships at work have worsened
  • Their reputation was damaged
  • They went through a stressful process unnecessarily

These are situations that either party could experience and while it is hard to prevent them from feeling a certain way, it is possible for employers to prevent retaliation. Complaints are filed because an employee thinks misconduct has taken place. This could be harassment, bullying or fraud. The investigator and/or the employer need to explain to all employees how harmful retaliation in the workplace could be for them and the company. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Retaliation in the workplace following an investigation

After an investigation, either the accused or the accuser may take action against the other party. There are many scenarios that may unfold:

  • Repeated harassment
  • Mistreatment
  • ’Cold shoulder’ treatment
  • Unfair working arrangements

Repeated harassment

In some cases, a victim may have filed a complaint that resulted in an investigation with no corrective action against the perpetrator. This can encourage the accused to continue to act just like they did before as they are confident that they will not get caught. What usually happens though is that the harassment worsens but it is more subtle as the perpetrator is being more cautious. They have gone through the investigation process and are more knowledgeable on how to not leave evidence behind.

This can create a really negative environment for the victim as they feel depressed, stressed and helpless since they have no way to stop the continuous harassment. The employee feels unsafe at work and the investigation could cause more employees to not speak up as they see that the perpetrator did not receive any disciplinary action

The company should highlight that retaliation in the workplace is prohibited. Stricter measures may need to be enforced after an investigation to monitor situations and employee relationships. If an investigation is inconclusive, the employer should not be complacent and should look for areas for improvement. Why did the victim feel the need to report a certain behaviour? What action can they take to ensure a similar complaint is not received again? These are questions that must be answered to create a safer workplace.

retaliation in the workplace


Mistreatment can take place in a number of ways. The accused may choose to speak to the victim in a harsher tone or treat them as if they are inferior to them. In an employer-to-employee case, they might limit their opportunities for promotion or give them negative performance reviews for no reason. They might choose to give a raise to everybody else except for the victim as they filed a complaint against them.

Micromanaging is another example of retaliation in the workplace. After an investigation, employees or managers may choose to scrutinise the victim and or try to reduce their autonomy. They may disregard their suggestion and not consider their ideas for a project.

Employers should ensure that all employees are treated equally. They should speak to all parties after the investigation and ensure that everything is turning out well. They should ask their employees for any worries or issues they need to raise and encourage them to come to them if something is wrong.

‘Cold shoulder’ treatment

This type of retaliation usually follows disciplinary action. If the accused feels like they did not deserve their punishment they may resent the accuser and give them the ‘cold shoulder’. This includes excluding them from team activities such as lunches and dinners or workplace conversations. They might not acknowledge their presence in the room and act as if the accuser does not exist.

This however highlights how important it is to make disciplinary action effective. Disciplinary action should not be exaggerated but at the same time they should target the root cause of the problem. Effective disciplinary action can prevent employees from acting unfriendly and creating rifts within the workplace.

Unfair working arrangements

As a result of the investigation, the victim may receive undesired work or tasks that are harder to do. They may receive an increased workload with the same working hours. In some scenarios, their working hours may decrease while the working load increases. The employee may slowly use their flexible working arrangements and may not be allowed to work for a specific department. They could be relocated to another office or transferred to an unfamiliar role.

These are all examples of retaliation that usually happens when a higher-up is accused. It could also happen because of a manager, supervisor or someone in power who suggested those changes.

Employers have a responsibility to care for their employees and check whether the new working arrangements are favourable. They should ask for reasoning if arrangements are changing and how the changes benefit the company and the employee at the same time. It is not enough to provide proof that the new conditions help the company. Employees’ mental health and well-being must be considered in decision-making.

Here are a few things to remember

Retaliation in the workplace can happen for a number of reasons after an investigation. While training can be a helpful way of preventing it, some strategies may need to be more creative in discouraging employees from worsening a situation. It is impossible to prevent all acts of retaliation; however, this does not mean that companies should not try to protect their employees. Strong policies and a reliable report line can prove beneficial in identifying and eliminating the problem early on. Ensuring that an investigation is carried out successfully is another way of managing retaliation in the workplace.

Polonious can help your company perform a fair and effective workplace investigation to minimise the probability of retaliation in the workplace. Our case management system meets strict ISO 9001 and ISO 27001 requirements to ensure a smooth process and faster turnaround times. We cover a range of investigations including internal and external, along with fraud, financial and harassment investigations. If you are wondering how we can help you reduce the chances of retaliation after an investigation, contact us and we will be happy to chat with you!