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Quiet retaliation: A loud and clear problem in the workplace?


Most business leaders are familiar with the concept of retaliation. It’s the most common employee charge of discrimination submitted to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) annually, representing nearly 56% of all reported complaints.

But what about quiet retaliation? Have you heard whispers about this in the workplace? Do you know whether quiet retaliation is making a big, noisy impact among some of your employees?

In this blog, we’ll cover:

  • What quiet retaliation is and what it looks like in action
  • How it can negatively impact the workplace
  • How to banish it from your company culture

What is quiet retaliation?

When we think about retaliation, we commonly think of a boss taking obvious adverse action against an employee as a form of punishment. For example, let’s say that an employee reports a concern to management and then, a short time later, is fired. That’s pretty compelling evidence of retaliation.

Quiet retaliation is similar but manifests in much more under-the-radar actions – so subtle that it can be easy for other employees to overlook it or shrug it off, or even doubt that retaliation is happening at all. To the targeted employee, however, it can feel very real and unnecessarily punitive.

Quiet retaliation encompasses a broad set of managerial behaviors toward specific employees. Added together, these actions make the employee’s work environment feel intolerable. Often, it can feel like a lot of little things that accumulate over time to create a hostile environment.

It tends to happen in isolated pockets, often targeting one or a small number of employees.

And because it’s less blatant, quiet retaliation can persist for prolonged periods.

Common examples of quiet retaliation at work:

  • Changing workload unfavorably
  • Altering work hours or schedule unfavorably
  • Moving an employee to a less desirable office space
  • Eliminating the option to work on a remote or hybrid basis
  • Not giving an employee the opportunity to work on special projects or assignments – especially visible, prominent projects
  • Not approving paid time off or another form of leave
  • Denying promotions
  • Micromanaging an employee
  • Hindering an employee’s opportunity to access or engage in training and development
  • Excluding an employee from work meetings or social gatherings
  • Withholding information, support and resources that an employee needs to do their job
  • Constantly contacting an employee outside work hours
  • Continually providing poor performance reviews
  • Leveraging information obtained about an employee on social media in the workplace

Potential problems

Without intervention or prevention measures, quiet retaliation can prove disastrous to any workplace culture.

To targeted employees, quiet retaliation can diminish their sense of worth and confidence or make them angry and resentful. To employees who witness quiet retaliation, it can leave them wondering if they’re next in line for this treatment. Either way, it leads to an environment of suspicion and stress in which everyone’s on edge. Most people can’t perform at their best in these conditions.

Worse yet, employees often take their cues from leadership. If they see managers engaging in quiet retaliation, they may get the impression that this behavior is acceptable at the company, thus perpetuating a toxic cycle of abuse among team members.

Ultimately, this lack of psychological safety and trust affects:

  • Morale
  • Productivity
  • Quality of work
  • Engagement
  • Retention

Furthermore, it’s human nature to vent frustrations. Whether it’s a private conversation with a prospective job candidate or a negative employee review on the internet, disgruntled team members may warn others about a culture in which quiet retaliation runs rampant. This can hurt your company’s reputation and ability to attract top talent.

There are also legal ramifications. Charges of retaliation are notoriously difficult for companies to navigate and defend against. If an employee can prove that retaliation was directed toward them or a specific individual, your company could get consumed in a lengthy legal process and may end up paying hefty fines.

How to prevent quiet retaliation

1. Investigate every charge

If you want to reinforce an anti-retaliation culture, demonstrate to your workforce that your company takes retaliation seriously.

Have a policy that outlines your company’s zero-tolerance stance on any form of retaliation against employees. Explain the behaviors that constitute retaliation. Tell employees how to report retaliation and what the process looks like.

Whenever an employee charges retaliation, investigate fully. Share your findings with the employee who submitted the complaint, as well as next steps.

2. Identify the warning signs

Pay attention to patterns among your workforce that could be red flags for manager problems. For example, does a particular manager have a much higher level of turnover than other managers? Does one team seem to stand out for its lower morale or productivity?

Where there’s smoke, there’s probably fire. Proactively investigate these cases and intervene as needed.

When applicable, human resources (HR) technology can help to identify potential trouble areas in an objective, data-based way.

3. Train leaders

Make anti-retaliation a key topic in your leadership training and development.

Current and future leaders should understand:

  • Which behaviors qualify as retaliation – quiet or otherwise
  • Why it’s a problem for the business, the culture and the workforce
  • How to boost self-awareness and help prevent those behaviors
  • The consequences for retaliating against employees, both from the EEOC and the company
  • How to guide employees through the complaint process

4. Put company policies in writing

Leaving things open to interpretation invites managers to introduce their own preferences, beliefs and biases in their interactions with employees.

In such cases, managers often have the space to engage in quiet retaliation when carrying out progressive discipline for violating a company policy.

That’s why all company policies should be:

  • Consistent and standardized across the organization
  • Documented in writing
  • Clear about the consequences for violations

When disciplining employees, managers should not:

  • Deviate from the written language of company policies
  • Invent their own rules and punishments
  • Introduce personal dislikes and grudges into the process
  • Act on a whim as they see fit

Any adverse action taken against employees must be directly connected to a company policy and a company-sanctioned form of discipline. When in doubt, HR needs to be involved.

5. Document employment decisions

In each team member’s personnel file, managers should document everything about the employee’s history with the company to demonstrate valid, objective rationale supporting any employment decisions they make, whether it concerns a:

  • Promotion
  • Demotion
  • Project assignment
  • Performance review
  • Change in job title, responsibilities or salary
  • Change in work schedule or location
  • Training or development opportunity

No employment decision should ever be personal.

6. Obtain employee feedback of managers

Sure, managers can meet with their own senior leaders to review their performance.

However, do you want to obtain a more honest, comprehensive view of your managers’ performance? Include their direct reports in a 360-degree managerial review. Have a feedback mechanism, such as skip-level conversations, in place to give employees a space to report any concerns they have with their immediate manager to more senior leadership. If quiet retaliation is an issue, this is an optimal forum for employees to discuss it.

7. Encourage self-assessment in managers

Your organization’s culture should encourage everyone, including leadership, to engage in self-assessments. This is an especially critical exercise for managers who don’t have as many opportunities to receive constructive feedback about their performance. Each day, managers should practice self-awareness of how their words and actions may be interpreted by others and assess whether they have engaged in any retaliatory behavior – even unintentionally. Then they must hold themselves accountable to making improvements.

Summing it all up

Quiet retaliation may not be as obvious and “in your face” as other forms of retaliation, but it’s equally harmful to your workforce and the culture your company has worked to build. Take it seriously and put proactive measures in place to stop it. This includes establishing clear company policies and reporting mechanisms, keeping an eye out for red flags, training leaders to recognize and avoid retaliatory practices, practicing good employee documentation and encouraging a more well-rounded review of manager performance.

To learn more about how to create a psychologically safe workplace built on trust, strong leadership practices and good communication, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to being a best place to work.