California Employment Law on Retaliation: Protect Your Rights

In the dynamic and diverse landscape of California’s workforce, employees are protected by a robust framework of laws designed to safeguard their rights and ensure a fair working environment. One critical aspect of these protections is the law against retaliation. This post delves into the nuances of California employment law on retaliation, offering insights into what constitutes retaliation, the legal protections in place, and the steps employees can take if they believe they are victims of retaliatory actions.

What is Retaliation?

Retaliation occurs when an employer takes adverse action against an employee for engaging in legally protected activities. These activities might include filing a complaint about workplace discrimination, participating in an investigation, or asserting rights under labor laws. Retaliatory actions can take many forms, such as termination, demotion, salary reduction, job reassignment, or any other action that would discourage a reasonable person from engaging in protected activity.

Legal Protections Against Retaliation in California

California’s employment laws provide some of the most comprehensive protections against retaliation in the United States. The primary statutes governing retaliation include:

  1. California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA):
    • FEHA prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who oppose discrimination or harassment, file a complaint, or participate in an investigation or proceeding related to employment discrimination or harassment.
  2. Labor Code Section 1102.5:
    • This section protects employees who report illegal activities or violations of regulations to government or law enforcement agencies. It also protects those who refuse to participate in activities that would result in a violation of state or federal laws.
  3. California Occupational Safety and Health Act (Cal/OSHA):
    • Under Cal/OSHA, employees are protected from retaliation when they report unsafe working conditions or exercise their rights under workplace safety laws.
  4. Whistleblower Protections:
    • Various other statutes, such as those related to wage and hour laws, also include provisions that protect whistleblowers from retaliation.

Examples of Retaliatory Actions

Retaliation can manifest in various ways, some of which are more subtle than others. Examples include:

  • Termination or Layoff: Firing an employee for making a complaint about workplace safety.
  • Demotion: Reducing an employee’s job level or responsibilities after they participated in a discrimination investigation.
  • Salary Reduction: Cutting an employee’s pay following their report of wage theft.
  • Unfavorable Job Reassignment: Moving an employee to a less desirable position after they expressed concerns about unlawful practices.
  • Harassment: Creating a hostile work environment for an employee who has exercised their legal rights.

Filing a Retaliation Complaint

Employees who believe they have been subjected to retaliation can take several steps to seek redress:

  1. Internal Complaint:
    • Many employers have internal procedures for handling complaints of retaliation. Employees should follow their company’s process to report the issue.
  2. Filing with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH):
    • Employees can file a complaint with the DFEH, which will investigate the claim and potentially facilitate a resolution between the employee and employer.
  3. Filing a Lawsuit:
    • If internal and administrative remedies do not resolve the issue, employees may file a lawsuit against their employer. Consulting with an employment law attorney can provide guidance on the viability of a legal claim and the best course of action.

Proving Retaliation

To prove a retaliation claim, an employee typically must show:

  1. Protected Activity:
    • The employee engaged in a legally protected activity, such as filing a complaint or participating in an investigation.
  2. Adverse Action:
    • The employer took an adverse action against the employee, such as termination or demotion.
  3. Causal Connection:
    • There is a causal link between the protected activity and the adverse action. This means the adverse action was taken because of the employee’s participation in the protected activity.

Remedies for Retaliation

Employees who prevail in a retaliation claim may be entitled to various remedies, including:

  • Reinstatement: Returning to their previous position.
  • Back Pay: Compensation for lost wages.
  • Compensatory Damages: For emotional distress and other losses.
  • Punitive Damages: In cases of particularly egregious conduct.
  • Attorney’s Fees and Costs: Reimbursement for the legal expenses incurred.


California’s employment laws offer significant protections to employees who assert their rights and report unlawful practices. Understanding these laws empowers employees to recognize and challenge retaliatory actions effectively. If you believe you have been a victim of retaliation, it’s essential to seek advice from an employment law professional to explore your options and ensure your rights are protected. The robust legal framework in California aims to foster a fair and just workplace where employees can speak up without fear of reprisal.