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Retaliation for resisting discrimination of others not OK

If you see something, say something, the saying goes. But what if you objecting to discrimination, even though you’re not the one being discriminated against?

A brief look back at a California court case might offer perspective. If you think you’ve been forced to quit or treated unjustly, an employment attorney can help you think about your options for recovering from the set back.

Top executive retaliates against sales manager

A landmark decision by the California Supreme Court had its origins when a top executive of a cosmetics company visited a San Jose department store, and checked out the company’s sales desk there.

He found the sales clerk to be "not good looking enough" and ordered the regional sales manager to fire the clerk. Even though the clerk was one of the region’s most effective salespeople, the top executive wanted the clerk replaced with “somebody hot.”

The sales manager refused, but she also didn’t quite act like a “whistleblower” either.

She didn’t file a formal complaint with Human Resources or her immediate supervisor and she never told any superior that she thought the order was discriminatory or violated California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which protects employees with from discrimination, retaliation and harassment.

She did, however, repeatedly ask for a better reason to fire the salesperson, saying the reasons she was given were inadequate. In the coming months, the sales manager began receiving negative performance reviews for the first time. She was criticized in front of her subordinates, her authority was reduced, and implications were floated that she might soon be fired. When these new work pressures caused, she believed, her blood pressure to spike, she took a medical leave and was quickly fired.

Federal and state courts recognize worker protections

The California Supreme Court agreed that the nature of the order itself and sales manager’s refusal to obey it were enough to send the message to the company and the executive. Such an obvious situation qualifies her for protection against retaliation.

The court warned that “an employee is not required to use legal terms or buzzwords when opposing discrimination.”

Over time, court decisions have gone one way or the other, sometimes for and sometimes against workers who believe they’ve been retaliated against or forced to quit for refusing to give in to discrimination. But such decisions tend to depend on the specifics of the case.

The principle of worker protection itself has a long and persistent track record of recognition by the highest courts in the state of California.

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