Our firm often receives calls from employees who have complained about harassment, discrimination, or other illegal conduct at their job, but no action has been taken by their employer and now they are experiencing retaliation. They usually want to know: “How do I protect myself and my legal rights without losing my job?”
There is, of course, never a guarantee against getting fired from your job under such circumstances. But if you learn and follow certain safeguards you can usually keep your legal rights intact. These safeguards become especially important when and if you are eventually terminated from your job.
The most important of these protections are listed below. Keep in mind they can vary depending on your job, your employer’s rules, and your individual circumstances.
- Review your company’s employee handbook and follow it.
First, locate your employee handbook. Make sure you have the one that is current and, if not, request one from your employer.
Take time to read the handbook thoroughly. Of primary importance are the sections on filing complaints, and the company‘s policy on investigating and reporting on such complaints.
You might also look for and learn key information on the company’s separation procedures, possible severance packages, obtaining references, and what is owed an exiting employee in benefits, such as unused vacations or PTO. All of this is good preparation for a possible sudden confrontation from your supervisor, or another type of notice regarding your possible departure from the company.
- Make a proper complaint and follow-up.
If you haven’t yet filed a formal complaint, do so immediately. If and when you contact HR or the designated supervisor with any complaints or grievances, be sure your correspondence with them is in writing, and make sure your complaint details exactly what you are complaining about. Never assume that HR or a supervisor is keeping a record of any verbal complaints or conversations.
After filing the complaint, continue to follow-up. Confirm the complaint has been properly documented by your HR Department or whoever is in charge of investigating it. Request whether it has been formally investigated, when it is expected to be completed, and whether you can see the final results.
If you learn the investigation has been completed, ask questions, including what actions, if any, were taken by your employer to remedy the situation, and how the outcome of the investigation will affect your continued employment.
For example, will the co-worker who has been harassing you be terminated, or will he/she be continuing their employment? Will the harasser be permitted to continue to work the same shift as you? Will the harasser’s desk remain positioned directly next to yours, or will you be permitted to move to a different location? Essentially, ask the necessary questions which will enable you to continue to complete your job duties without unnecessary distractions or further interference.
- Document, document, document.
Before, during and after your complaint is being investigated, collect and retain all documentation relating to your complaint. Continue to document all facts relating to your view of your claim, including keeping a home journal of any continuing retaliation and other actions that are significant to how you are being damaged.
- Solicit feedback regarding your own performance and status with the company.
Ensure that your own position and status is secure. Most specifically, obtain confirmation that you are in good standing with your employer and, if not, what are the specific areas where you supposedly need improvement. If your employer has completed performance evaluations for you in the past, be sure to request a copy of your evaluations on file. If you know you are due to have a yearly performance evaluation, ask when you can expect to receive one.
If there are any reported deficiencies, do everything in your power to make improvements to correct them, and to obtain feedback on the same. If possible, get as much as you can regarding your improvements in writing. Again, document, document, document.
- Expect the best, prepare for the worst.
If it becomes obvious that you are being set up for termination, begin preparing for what might become a quick exit. Knowing you may be suddenly locked out of your computer and all access to any information, make sure you have preserved any of your personal information, such as what you might need for future employment (contact information for friends and personal connections, and documents for your personal status relating to future job searches).
You are generally not permitted to remove any materials that belong to the company, but you do have a right to preserve documents that relate to your potential legal claim (e.g. copies of emails documenting your complaints to your employer). Generally, you cannot take documents that are propriety to the company, confidential, or for which you have signed a confidentiality agreement. [For pointers on preserving documentation, see our upcoming blog “Preserving Evidence for a Future Claim against your Employer”].
- Make a contingency plan.
Prepare your resume and, where applicable, begin to reach out for your future career alternatives. If you have any medical concerns - physical or psychological - make necessary appointments while you retain your medical insurance. Lastly, check your financial health. Consider your options in possibly getting through a few months with reduced income.
- Contact an attorney.
If you have more specific questions or concerns, contact an attorney for further advice on your potential claim. Our attorneys are always available to hear your story and answer any other questions you may have regarding what we know to be this very difficult time. Call our office at 859-431-3333 to speak with an attorney or to schedule an appointment.