We tend to think of workplace retaliation as being immediate, dramatic, and obvious: An employee files a sexual harassment complaint against her boss and is savagely bullied in response. A worker complains of unsafe working conditions and has his hours reduced. A group of workers engage in a union organizing campaign and are terminated. And so on.
But there’s another, insidious form of retaliation sometimes visited upon those who raise legal and ethical concerns at work.
This type of retaliation lacks the sudden oomph that easily trips the legal wires of anti-retaliation provisions and whistleblower laws. Rather, it may come in milder doses, such as smaller raises, fewer opportunities for advancement, petty criticisms and slights, and selective marginalization that stops short of complete exclusion. It is subtle, nuanced, and drawn out over time, sometimes morphing into a seemingly organic or cultural practice of treating a dissenter as the Permanent Other.
Less obvious and immediate, and cloaked in the subjective standards of the modern workplace, slow retaliation provides the perpetrators with a veneer of deniability. Even if the target has her suspicions, the tracks have been covered.
Slow retaliation typically occurs in insular, insecure, dysfunctional institutions, and it is often directed at someone whose strong performance would make sharp, full frontal retaliation all too transparent. Of course, if the target of such low-level payback ever commits a transgression or falls short in any way that opens the door for serious discipline or discharge, then the guns will come out blazing with righteous fury: Now we’ve got him in our sights. Fire away.
Legal claims for retaliation are easiest to win when the retaliatory behaviors are significant and come soon after filing a complaint or reporting a concern. By contrast, slow retaliation can be next to impossible to prove, requiring the complainant to piece together a collection of behaviors, often at the hands of different actors, in an attempt to show an orchestrated pattern in response to the triggering act. Short statutes of limitations may complicate matters as well.
The “good” news is that slow retaliation — at least in the lesser form described here — can be tolerable, falling short of behaviors that severely undermine psyches, careers, and livelihoods. This is hardly an ideal state of affairs, but in a world that often requires trade-offs in work situations, at least the target has some degree of self-negotiated choice.
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