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Even if you had the best intentions for defending one of your colleagues; whether the individual was demoted, fired or even harassed on the job, your employer may still choose to fire you. However, the question you should be asking is this: Was your firing legal? If not, your employer may have subjected you to wrongful termination and retaliation.

In the state of California, you cannot legally be fired solely for protecting a coworker who has been facing workplace discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. But illegal firings still occur in the workplace.

There are numerous examples of employees who have been demoted or terminated for supporting individuals who face unlawful workplace discrimination. Individuals who come to the aid of employees who are facing discrimination by complaining of or opposing illegal workplace behaviors may be engaging in protected activity. Under law, an employer cannot retaliate against an employee for engaging in that protected activity.

Retaliation is one of the most common charges filed with employer human resource departments, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the court system.

What is Protected Activity?

A protected activity can be defined as opposition to a practice that is believed to be unlawful workplace discrimination. An employee who speaks out or files a complaint regarding any discrimination that the employee reasonably believes occurred in the workplace cannot face discrimination or retaliation for that activity. Opposition activity may include complaining within the organization about the perceived discrimination. It could also include threatening to file a charge of discrimination or refusing to obey an order that is reasonably believed to be discriminatory. It can also include an employee refusing to engage in discriminatory, harassing, or retaliatory behavior.

Another type of protected activity is participation in an employment discrimination proceeding. This type of protected activity includes filing a discrimination charge, cooperating with an internal investigation, or participating in an administrative investigation with the DFEH, EEOC or in a lawsuit.

Employers cannot lawfully retaliate against employees who are engaged in protected activity. But when retaliation occurs, the employer subjects the protected employee to an adverse action.

What is an Adverse Action?

Adverse action is when an employer harms the employment of an employee who has engaged in protected activity. Adverse actions often concern three major employment actions:

1. Termination
2. Refusal to hire, or
3. Denial of promotion

Additionally, hostile activities such as threats, unjustified negative performance evaluations, changes in work tasks, or a demotion could all potentially be adverse actions.

Employees should be protected from adverse actions in their jobs merely for doing the right thing by either opposing illegal employer behaviors, or by participating in a workplace discrimination proceeding.

You as well as your coworkers – from entry-level employees to C-suite executives – share a responsibility to prevent discrimination and support each other. Similarly, all employees have a right to be free from workplace retaliation for opposing illegal discrimination at work.

Workplace Retaliation & Wrongful Termination: For Further Reading

  • Facts About Retaliation via EEOC.gov
  • Prohibited Employment Practices via California DFEH
  • Wrongful Termination Lawsuits: Real Cases
  • Workplace Retaliation in California: What Are Your Rights?

If you feel your employer has illegally fired you for defending a colleague, contact the knowledgeable California employment attorneys at Hennig Ruiz for a free consultation right away.