Is it Time to Sue Your Employer?
Roger A. Reid
Right up front, I want to make it clear I am not an attorney, and nothing that follows is intended to be or construed as legal advice. The matters discussed in this article can be complex and you should seek the advice of a competent professional before taking any kind of action.
With that being said, let’s begin . . .
Bringing formal legal action against your employer should always be considered a last resort to correcting an difficult situation or problem at work. And keep in mind that, from the standpoint of keeping your job, making a legal claim of any kind against the company usually brings the kiss of death to your career—and that’s true, regardless of your rights as defined by law.
So how do you know when it’s time to call an attorney?
First, look at the situation as objectively as possible. Pursuing damages over a misunderstanding or unintentional blunder by management—especially if it’s a one-time event and an apology follows—is seldom a good move in the long-term.
Clarify—if only to yourself—what your real motivations are. Is this an emotional vendetta to settle a grudge? Or are you facing an ongoing problem that continues to persist in spite of your best efforts to bring it to the attention of a supervisor?
Always keep in mind that issues based on management’s decisions about promotions, raises, assignments, transfers, and relocations are seldom actionable. Don’t confuse the ongoing business decisions of the company for discrimination or as grounds for wrongful termination. In many cases, it’s not personal—it’s business.
Deciding what to do and when to do it is usually based on the severity and repeating frequency of the infraction. If the event(s) have robbed you of any desire or incentive to stay with your employer, then your options are much clearer. But if you want to preserve the professional relationship, consider handling—and resolving—the issue “off the books.”
Begin by approaching the source of the problem privately. Start by saying how much you like your job, and you want to clear up a situation that’s bothering you. Explain your position, how the problem makes you feel, and ask if the behavior or situation can be changed or eliminated. End the conversation with your appreciation for the person(s) consideration and your promise that your conversation will remain private.
Here’s a suggested order of actions to handle a personal grievance:
1. Document the event each time it happens. Write down the date, the time, the names of the individuals involved including any witnesses, and include a description of exactly what took place. Keep this in a notebook AT HOME. Never leave any derogatory or damaging evidence at the office, and never reveal to anyone that you have it.
2. Document any actions, communications, or face-to-face meetings you have to resolve the issue, regardless of whether it’s with a co-worker or supervisor. Include the date and time, details of how long the meeting/conversation lasted, what was discussed, and what was decided or resolved.
3. Run your situation by an attorney, if for no other reason than to create third-party confirmation of the problem at the time it takes place. You’re creating a verifiable contemporaneous record of the situation and how it’s impacting you. This will become an effective tool if you need to take legal action, or find yourself terminated with a fabricated cause as a “pre-emptive” measure to counter the validity of your complaint.
I want to stress these situations can be complicated, and may originate from a company agenda or the personal intentions of a superior you are simply unaware of. I’m not an attorney, and can’t give legal advice. Just keep in mind there’s a time to try to negotiate and a time to lower the boom on prejudice, harassment, and mental and physical extortion. Discuss your options with someone you trust—your spouse, a close friend who can keep their mouth shut, or a family member. Ideally, they should have a comparable professional background to yours. Factor in the advice from an attorney and then decide the best way of dealing with the problem.
I’ll leave this rather ugly topic with this: Being able to settle, manage, or otherwise negotiate problems is what management expects of their best and brightest. From the company’s mindset, airing their dirty laundry in public is de-facto proof you’re not management material. Conversely, there’s going to be a few bad apples in the majority of work places, and if push comes to shove, the responsible action may be to confront them and, if necessary, take legal action against the organization that allows it to continue. The key to deciding which road to take is how you’re going to feel about yourself afterward.
Bottom line, protect your self-respect as you would any valuable asset.