Even though almost everyone in this country is an employee at some time in their life, here are so many things that people don’t understand about the legal aspects of that role. The first thing people need to understand is that in all states (except Montana), unless you have an employment contract - you are an “at-will employee” and employers may fire employees for any reasons, no reasons and even unfair reasons, as long as they are not illegal reasons.
You cannot be treated differently or fired because of: race, color, national origin, age, gender (pregnancy, sexual orientation) or physical or mental disability. These are considered protected classes – protected by anti-discrimination laws. There are other illegal actions an employer can take, including retaliation, harassment, creating a hostile work environment and a few others.
My husband is an Employment Attorney in California who works for employees only. After 20 years in the corporate world of employee benefits, he wanted to have his own law practice and work to help people. I have been his sounding board for the past 6 years, and his paralegal for the last 6 months.
In the work I have done with Tom’s clients, I have found that there are those who tuned in to their employment problems and began compiling evidence, and those who let things run their course and then try to put together a complaint. You can guess which is more successful.
If you think you fall into a protected class and believe that you are being treated unlawfully at work, start “preparing your case” right away. You can believe that a smart boss or human resources department is doing so. When there is an incident, write it down, including the date, names of witnesses and who said or did what. Report problems right away and keep documentation, for example a copy of the e-mail you send or report form you submit. Even if management or the HR department doesn’t act.
Keeping a diary at work, even jottings on a calendar can be very helpful should you someday need to recount each and every incident. (Many small incidents can show a pattern of a problem.) Note the circumstances, the discussion, witnesses, how you felt and what action was taken. When you have a verbal discussion, write up a memo of what was discussed and send it to those involved.
If the job issues put you under stress, tell your doctor. Ask for a referral to a mental health counselor and go. Stress and medical problems brought on by stress can seriously affect your health and ability to work.
If you think your job is in jeopardy, try to clear up the problem by talking with your employer. If you don’t find a solution, do not quit your job. Seek legal counsel. Many attorneys will listen to your story and give 30 minutes of legal advice or coaching without charge. That call may help you save your job or preserve your rights!
If you get fired or laid off, it is very important to stay calm. Get as much information as you can. Listen carefully and take notes. Do not sign anything. As soon as the meeting is over, write down anything else you can remember about what happened at the meeting and contact an employment lawyer. Some attorneys, for a small fee, will review a separation agreement and coach you on how to improve the agreement to your benefit.
Most of us are working away, navigating the corporate culture and just dealing with things as they come. Unfairness, hostility, overwork and little indignities can just be part of the deal. Be smart, though. Take care of your rights as an employee.