One of the most difficult decisions an employee may ever face occurs when an unethical, unsafe or unlawful condition exists at the company, and the employee has to decide whether or not to notify a supervisor, or other company authority. Making complaints at work, or blowing the whistle, if you will, can have serious consequences. The above video discusses this in great detail (with a bit of humor).
The employee will fears their boss will retaliate. They might get fired, passed over for a promotion, written-up, demoted, or receive a pay reduction. Our office has seen numerous cases where an employee reports a violation, and then, for the first time ever, suddenly gets hit with a bad performance evaluation.
In many cases, when an employer retaliates against a worker because the worker complained about an unsafe or unlawful condition, the company has broken the law. We have an entire sections of our website dedicated to retaliation and whistleblowing.
However, but there are simple steps that the employee can take, that if done correctly, could avert retaliation, bad feelings, and legal action altogether. In other words, when it comes to complaining at work, some approaches are better than others.
The above video discusses seven tips to avoid being retaliated against when lodging complaints. This page was written to briefly discuss some of those steps.
1. Don’t Threaten
If you are reporting an unsafe condition, keep in mind that the goal is to get the violation fixed. Don’t threaten legal action or launching a slew of legal buzzwords at the company. You run the risk of escalating the situation. Furthermore, if the case goes to court at a later date, the company can potentially paint the employee as a troublemaker more intent on levelling threats than solving an actual problem.
2. Focus on Illegal Activities, Be Specific, Be Helpful
When notifying your manger about a potential violation, focus on the things that you believe are unlawful. In many cases, our office has counseled clients who have sent a long rambling emails to the company that complains about a wide range of problems, perhaps some of which are unlawful.
This usually doesn’t help the employee when it comes to getting the problem solved. Remember, if you’re complaining about a potentially unlawful problem at work, your goal should be to get the problem fixed. Keep your complaint short, explain why you believe it’s unlawful, and try to recommend practical solutions if possible,
3. If Possible, Follow Procedures Outlined in the Employee Handbook
In many cases, a company will provide the guidelines for reporting a violation in the employee handbook. If possible, follow the company’s procedure. When faced with a retaliation claim in a court of law, companies will often claim that they knew nothing of the violation. It’s a favorite tactic of defense lawyers in these situations to say “the company never received the complaint.”
Be sure to follow the proper procedure and get the complaint to the right person. If you don’t have an employee handbook to follow, use your best judgment when getting the complaint to the right person.
4. Put it in Writing, But Check Your Wording
It’s important that you not only complain to the right person, but complain in writing. Often times, company witnesses will take the stand and won’t remember being told of a violation. Without proof of the claim, it’s impossible to prove whether the witness is being forgetful or just lying. However, it becomes more difficult for the company to pretend it never received a complaint when there is an email proving otherwise.
So, put it in writing, but keep a cool head. Make sure the tone and language of your complaint isn’t aggressive or threatening. If for instance you are reporting a violation of overtime pay, rather than saying “The company isn’t complying with the wage laws! I’m not getting all of my overtime!” You might say, “I don’t think my overtime pay is being calculated correctly. We should look into what the labor code says. If I’m right, the company needs to fix this.”
If you Have Questions, Contact an Attorney
If you’ve experienced retaliation, or have questions about a potentially unlawful work situation, reach out to an employment attorney like our firm. In some cases, taking a company to court is the only way to get a violation fixed. Workers who experience retaliation are in many cases entitled to monetary compensation. Be sure to check out our video on preventing workplace retaliation. If you have further questions, contact our office to find out how we can help.