Because I spend a lot of my workweek conducting harassment prevention workshops, it’s ironic that I was accused of harassment. Although it was a meritless complaint, I reacted the way people are supposed to react in the workplace when they are accused of wrongdoing — I continued to do my job in a professional manner and didn’t try to get back at the complainant in any way. Because I had done nothing wrong, the issue quickly went away.

Was it easy for me to react that way? Not at all. When we feel threatened by things, such as people making complaints about us, our bodies are wired to go into self-defense mode — what is called the fight-or-flight response.

According to “The term ‘fight-or-flight’ represents the choices that our ancient ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment. They could either fight or flee.

In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to danger.” Someone complaining about us, especially when we’ve done nothing wrong, certainly triggers this response. Despite its organic origins, we can’t seek revenge when people complain, even when it’s a bogus complaint. And, if you’re an employer, manager, supervisor or anyone else in a position of power, you can’t punish employees (fire, demote, transfer or take some other employment action) for complaining about you, anyone else or anything in the workplace. That would be retaliating against a whistleblower and it’s very much against the law.

I’m writing this article on Sept. 27 and retaliating against a whistleblower is currently a hot topic because acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire spoke to the House Intelligence Committee yesterday about a federal employee who filed a complaint. During the meeting, Rep. Terri Sewell told Maguire that she’s concerned that “what has happened with this whistleblower” will have a “chilling effect” on future whistleblowers coming forward.

What happened to this whistleblower is what happens to most people who file complaints — retaliation or the threat of it. After the news of the complaint became public, the whistleblower’s boss was recorded saying the whistleblower is “almost a spy,” the person who gave the whistleblower information is “close to a spy” and suggested they be treated like spies were in the old days, which was, at least in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, being executed by the federal government. That’s an extreme version of retaliation. The Whistleblower Protection Act protects federal employees and applicants for employment who lawfully report certain wrongdoing from personnel action being taken against them.

California whistleblowing laws protect all employees from being retaliated against for reporting that their employer or its agents broke the law or violated the public’s trust. The reporting can be done to a government official, the police, a supervisor within the organization or “any public body” conducting a hearing or investigation. Regardless of your opinion about the federal whistleblower situation, if you’re an employer, manager, supervisor or anyone else in a position of power, you cannot punish employees for making complaints. It might be determined that the complaint is without merit.

However, retaliating against an employee for making the complaint will still cost you (repayment of lost wages to terminated employees, damages for injuries suffered, jail time, etc.). Instead of retaliating, thank employees for coming forward when they make a complaint and fix whatever legitimate problem they bring to your attention — even when that problem is you.

Robin Paggi is a training and development specialist with Worklogic HR.

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