Human Resources has called you into a meeting. At first, you are nervous. You wonder if someone caught you taking Carl’s lunch from the fridge or if all of those pens you accidentally put in your pocket are going to come back to haunt you. But then you quickly realize, it is not about you. HR is investigating a complaint of unlawful discrimination made against your supervisor. During the interview, HR asks, “Have you ever been discriminated against by your supervisor because of your race/sex/religion/disability/age/national origin/color/sexual orientation?” You answer truthfully, telling the investigator that you have been discriminated against based on a protected characteristic. You’ve seen this supervisor do that to others as well. You provide several examples of both things. When your supervisor finds about the interview and what you said, your supervisor fires you.
Or how about this: You have noticed that you are not being treated the same as many of your coworkers, who are of a different race/sex/religion/disability/age/national origin/color/sexual orientation. Perhaps you are not getting as much pay, getting less desirable work assignments, or not getting approval for PTO or sick leave. Maybe your supervisor uses a nickname you told the supervisor you don’t like. He doesn’t use belittling nicknames with other employees. Maybe, unlike other employees, the supervisor micromanages or over-scrutinizes your work, giving you a bad performance evaluation. One day, you go to HR or even maybe your supervisor. You ask your supervisor, “Am I being treated differently because of my race/sex/religion/disability/age/national origin/color/sexual orientation?” The supervisor says no, but a week later you’re fired.
Have you engaged in protected activity by merely answering questions by the company or asking if you have been unlawfully discriminated against?
YES! That is considered protected activity, but it took courts a surprisingly long time to say that. For example, regarding whether or not reporting discrimination during a company’s internal investigation is protected activity had to be litigated all the way up to the Supreme Court. And that didn’t happen until 2009. Here is what the Supreme Court said about that:
There is, then, no reason to doubt that a person can “oppose” by responding to someone else’s question just as surely as by provoking the discussion, and nothing in the statute requires a freakish rule protecting an employee who reports discrimination on her own initiative but not one who reports the same discrimination in the same words when her boss asks a question.
Crawford v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville & Davidson Cnty, Tenn., 555 U.S. 271, 277-78 (2009).
The second scenario, where the report of unlawful conduct takes the form of a question, was not decided by Texas state courts until 2005 in a Texas Whistleblower Act case. In that case, the Third Court of Appeals in Austin held that a whistleblower is protected for reporting a violation of law even if it is “in the form of a query.” Tex. Dep’t of Assistive & Rehab. Srvcs. v. Howard, 182 S.W.3d 393, 400 (Tex. App.—Austin 2005, pet. denied). The federal appellate courts didn’t decide this issue until 2009. In 2009, the Seventh Circuit held that asking whether something was disability discrimination constituted protected activity. See Casna v. City of Loves Park, 574 F.3d 420, 427 (7th Cir. 2009). The issue has not been directly addressed in the Fifth Circuit, which is the federal appellate court for Texas, but the reasoning of both Crawford and Casna apply. In fact, the Fifth Circuit has even cited Casna for the proposition that informal complaints constitute protected activity. See Amanduran v. American Airlines, 416 Fed. App’x 421, 424 (5th Cir. 2011).
One caveat must be mentioned though. While both of the above examples would be considered protected activity, it is important to note that in both examples, the employee specifically stated which type of discrimination they experienced or asked about experiencing. If the employee had just said that they were being treated differently or asked if they were being treated differently, it is unlikely that either one would be considered protected activity.
So, if you think you have been discriminated against and are going to raise the issue with your employer, be specific and state explicitly what type of discrimination you believe you have experienced. You should also consider contacting an employment lawyer who can help you navigate these issues and talk to you about whether you have a case and what options there are.