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Civil Rights News | Feb. 7, 2023

Chilling Effect and its Retaliation Impacts

By Paul Ziegengeist, Equal Employment Opportunity Zone Manager, Region 1, Civil Rights Directorate

“Any staff member who participates in the upcoming EEO investigation better be careful of the testimony you provide!” 

“Are you really going to play the race card?”

“If any of the statements you provided in your complaint are not true, your employment here will be terminated.”

“You should speak with me first before you think about filing a complaint.”

How would you feel if these remarks were directed towards you, or you witnessed a coworker experience this? Scared? Powerless?

While the total Coast Guard workforce and applicants for employment have the legal right to engage in the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and Equal Opportunity (EO) complaint process, sometimes participating can be an emotional and uneasy decision to make.

Hearing statements or actions like the ones above, whether intentional or unintentional, can cause what’s known as the “chilling effect” and discourage or suppress the workforce’s legitimate right to raise a concern through the EEO/EO process. Having their voices silenced not only impacts those who engage in EEO activity, but also affects members who have encountered discriminatory events but are now potentially dissuaded from participating in EEO related activities in the future. Even potential witnesses and bystanders to discriminatory events may think twice before providing statements to investigators due to the possible “chilling effect.”

In the context of retaliation, the “chilling effect” has such a significant impact on workplace climate that it is considered an automatic violation of the law, also known as a per se violation.  These do not require evidence of any adverse personnel action being taken against the complainant nor does it require ill intent. Ultimately, the perpetrator and the federal agency are liable for any statements, comments, accusations, or actions that discourage people from using their due process to address their claims.

The Coast Guard is committed to maintaining a work environment that is free of harassment, discrimination, intimidation, and retaliation. Retaliatory actions and creating a “chilling effect” are unacceptable and severely impact the willingness of people to speak out against employment discrimination or harassment, thus negatively affecting performance and mission execution and leading to a hostile work environment.