Adverse Employment Action

Unravel the mystery of ‘Adverse Employment Action’

This article will elucidate this concept in the context of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s FEHA, offering valuable insights for employers and employees alike, and shedding light on its application in discrimination and retaliation cases.

An adverse employment action, as defined under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), denotes a materially adverse change in employment conditions, such as termination, demotion, or reduction in benefits that significantly impacts an employee’s job status or working conditions. Both laws view this action as an aspect of workplace discrimination and retaliation.

Determining if an action qualifies as adverse requires a comprehensive understanding of the employee’s job role, responsibilities, and the circumstances surrounding the employment setback. In essence, the ruling in a discrimination or retaliation case under Title VII or FEHA largely hinges on proving that an adverse employment action indeed occurred, thereby impacting the employee’s working conditions or job status adversely.

Definition of adverse employment action under Title VII

Title VII’s definition of an adverse employment action refers to a materially adverse change in employment conditions such as termination, demotion, or significant reduction in benefits. This term is critical to discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Here are some examples: 

  • Discharge: Termination of employment can be a devastating experience, potentially causing financial and emotional distress.
  • Demotion: Being demoted not only affects an employee’s income but can also damage their self-esteem and career trajectory.
  • Reduction in salary or benefits: A significant decrease in salary or benefits can severely impact an employee’s quality of life.
  • Failure to promote: Being passed over for promotion can hinder an employee’s career progression and can be particularly disheartening if it’s due to discrimination.
  • Harassment: Workplace harassment can create a hostile work environment, causing emotional harm and affecting job performance.


Moving on from defining adverse employment action, it’s important to delve into its implications for discrimination in the workplace. Discrimination involves any adverse action taken against an employee based on their membership in a protected class such as race, gender, age, religion, etc. These actions may include demotion, termination, reduction of hours, or denial of promotion.

Type of Discrimination Examples of Adverse Actions Protected Class
Denial of promotion, Dismissal
Women, Transgender
Forced early retirement, Denials of training opportunities
Individuals over 40
Failure to provide reasonable accommodations, Dismissal
Individuals with physical or mental impairments
Unjustified disciplinary actions, Unfair performance evaluations
Individuals of any race
Schedule changes interfering with religious observances, Harassment
Individuals of any religion

Understanding these aspects is crucial for both employers and employees to ensure a fair and equitable workplace.


In the context of employment law, retaliation refers to any adverse action taken by an employer against an employee for engaging in legally protected activities. This could include activities such as reporting harassment, discrimination, or unsafe working conditions, or participating in an investigation of such issues.

Retaliation can manifest in various forms, such as dismissal, demotion, salary reduction, or change in job responsibilities. It can have significant emotional and financial impacts on the employee, leading to stress, anxiety, and loss of income.

It can create a culture of fear and silence in the workplace, discouraging employees from standing up for their rights. It can also have legal consequences, as retaliation is prohibited under various federal and state laws.

Preventing retaliation requires a proactive approach from employers, involving clear policies, regular training, and a supportive workplace culture.

What is an adverse employment action in CA(under state law)?

While federal Title VII provides a broad definition, under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), an adverse employment action is specifically defined as any course of conduct that materially and adversely affects an employee’s working conditions. It goes beyond mere inconveniences or alterations of job responsibilities.

Aspect Definition under FEHA
Unfair dismissal of an employee
Reduction in rank or status
Unwelcome conduct based on protected characteristics
Reduction of Working Hours
Significant decrease in scheduled working hours
Unfair treatment due to protected characteristics

These actions, to be considered adverse, must significantly affect the employee’s employment or create a hostile work environment. It’s a detailed and nuanced concept that requires careful interpretation under California law.

In what types of cases is it important

Often, the concept of adverse employment action plays a pivotal role in discrimination and retaliation cases under both Title VII and California’s FEHA. These cases generally involve:

  • Wrongful termination: An employee being fired for illegal reasons, such as discrimination or retaliation.
  • Discrimination: Treat employees differently based on their race, sex, age, religion, or other protected characteristics.
  •  Retaliation: Punishing employees for reporting discrimination or participating in an investigation.
  •  Harassment: Unwanted behavior in the workplace, such as offensive jokes, slurs, or physical assaults.
  •  Failure to Accommodate: Employers refuse to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities or religious beliefs.

In these instances, proving an adverse employment action is essential to hold the employer accountable for their unlawful actions.

How can I prove that I suffered one?

How, then, can one establish proof of suffering an adverse employment action? The burden of proof lies on the employee, and it’s often met through a detailed comparison of pre and post-decision conditions.

Changes in salary, hours worked, benefits, job title, or duties are key factors to consider. Documenting these changes meticulously can build a strong case.

Additionally, demonstrating that you belong to a protected class or engaged in protected activities can help establish a discrimination or retaliation claim, respectively. For retaliation claims, it is vital to show a causal link between your protected activity and the adverse action.

Lastly, any evidence of biased comments or differential treatment can further substantiate your claim.

Thus, careful documentation and analysis are essential in proving an adverse employment action.


In conclusion, understanding the concept of adverse employment action is crucial in addressing employment discrimination and retaliation cases.

As it encompasses a broad range of actions – from terminations to salary reductions – it underlines the importance of fair employment practices.

Whether under Title VII or California’s state law, recognizing an adverse employment action and proving its occurrence is fundamental in protecting employees’ rights and fostering an equitable workplace.

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