Last November, thousands of Google Employees participated in a walkout to protest everything from forced arbitration to transparency in sexual harassment investigations. Google listened and granted much of what the protesters asked for. So why are the organizers, upset and in the news again? Retaliation.

Illegal retaliation happens when you punish an employee (either overtly or covertly) after they make a protected claim. Protected is the important thing. You can certainly retaliate against someone for behaving poorly, or protesting something not protected  under the law. (For an interesting example, see my Inc. Colleague, Alison Green's example of interns being fired for protesting the dress code.) But, if you're complaining about working conditions, reporting sexual harassment, or any other legally protected complaints, you should be protected from retaliation.

Google Protest organizers, Claire Stapleton and Meredith Whittaker claim that they had experienced retaliation directly related to the protest. In a letter, Whittaker said her longstanding work in AI ethics was canceled while Stapleton says she was demoted and then retaliated against for complaining to HR.

In a statement to Wired, Google said:

"We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and investigate all allegations. Employees and teams are regularly and commonly given new assignments, or reorganized, to keep pace with evolving business needs. There has been no retaliation here." 

Now, whether or not retaliation occurred, is something that we can't judge from here, but retaliation is common and will torpedo your defense in a lawsuit. Employment Attorney Jon Hyman says, regarding retaliation:

Retaliation are the most dangerous claims that employers face...When an employee engages in protected activity, you must treat that employee with added care, as any act that could dissuade an employee from engaging in protected activity could give rise to a retaliation claim.

You can be innocent of whatever behavior the employee complained about, but if you retaliate against the employee for making a good faith claim, then you can still lose the lawsuit. Keep this in mind.

Train your managers that there should never be any punishment for lodging a complaint. This can be extremely difficult as it's human nature to want to strike out against someone who complained about your behavior, but as Hyman said, you need to to act with care when dealing with a potential retaliation situation. Swallow your pride and treat everyone fairly.

Published on: Apr 24, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.