This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Reston Town Center that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement, and private sector employee matters. They write weekly on Reston Now.
We often advise employees on how to best handle their employment problems in the workplace either while they are developing or after an adverse employment action. It is important for employees who are experiencing workplace problems to stay focused and calm while issues are developing and to follow some general guidelines. Here are 10 tips:
When facing employment issues, don’t get visibly upset in the workplace. For instance, if you are meeting with Human Resources (HR), it is important to remain calm during the HR meeting. As difficult as it may seem at the time, it is important to stay calm even when dealing with significant employment issues. It generally is not helpful to argue with HR or a supervisor over an employment issue that arises. Doing so can put an employee at risk for discipline, placement on leave, or even retaliation. Listen to what HR or the supervisor has to say, remain non-committal about any allegations, but indicate a willingness to cooperate and work out any employment problems, if at all possible.
2. Don’t Post About Employment Issues on Social Media.
It is highly recommended that an employee not post his/her employment problems on social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter). Employees often forget who they have friended in the social media realm or haven’t adequately set privacy settings. Despite having set privacy settings adequately, there still may be an extended audience (e.g., friends of friends) who are privy to the employee’s posts.
Our firm often sees insubordination or misconduct cases involving posts that employees have placed on their social media accounts about issues in their employment (or about a particular supervisor) that have somehow been forwarded on to the employer or supervisor involved. Employers and their attorneys have simply become more adept at obtaining this type of information.
3. Keep Your Legal Plans Private.
Employees often get understandably upset with supervisors and HR about a particular employment situation (e.g., Letter of Warning, Performance Improvement Plan, Suspension, etc.) and state that they are going to take legal action. Do not let a supervisor, HR, or anyone in the workplace know about your legal plans prior to consulting with an attorney.
It is important to keep employment issues and legal plans private. We have seen many instances where an employee informs a supervisor that he/she is seeking legal assistance on an employment issue, which then leads to retaliation by that supervisor. It is important for an employee not to inform a supervisor or anyone in the workplace about any legal plans early in the process and until the employee has sought legal advice.
4. Be Wary of Your HR Department.
Don’t necessarily trust the HR department. Employees may think that HR is a neutral or safe forum to raise employment issues, but this is generally not the case. Any employment issues that are raised by an employee may be shared with the supervisor and can lead to retaliation. HR departments work for and tend to be loyal to senior level supervisors as opposed to working to properly enforce company policy. It is important to be careful when bringing workplace issues to HR’s attention without first consulting with an attorney.
5. Let an HR Investigation Run Its Course.
If a complaint has been filed against an employee (i.e., by a co-worker alleging some sort of misconduct) and the allegations are serious enough, the employee may be placed on paid or unpaid leave while an investigation is being conducted by the employer.However, many HR complaints do not result in the employee being placed on leave.
An investigation will likely follow the HR complaint, and it can be short (a few days) or long (a few months) in duration. Investigations can be conducted internally by HR or by in-house or outside legal counsel. At the conclusion of the investigation, an employee will typically be notified of the outcome. If the outcome is negative, the employee may be proposed for suspension, reassignment, or termination. If the outcome is positive, the employee may or may not be informed of the outcome. For instance, HR may just inform the employee that the investigation is over. In such case, there may be no adverse impact on the employee if he/she simply lets the investigation run its course.
6. Don’t Use Your Work Email Account for Workplace Issues.
Our firm generally recommends that employees not use their employer’s email account to send personal or private information, especially related to their employment issues. It is often very easy to use an employer’s email account for private or workplace issues, but it can later adversely affect an employee’s employment claims.
When an employer begins to notice or suspects problems with an employee, one of the first steps the employer takes is a review of the employee’s work email account. Employers often archive old emails for each employee, so it is very important to be careful when using a work email account. Any work emails, even if they contain private information, can potentially be used against the employee. The employer may further potentially claim that the employee misused his/her work email account or obtain private information related and damaging to the employee’s workplace claims.
7. Be Wary of Using Your Employer’s Computer for Employment Issues.
Along with work email usage, it is important to be careful about using an employer’s computer or Internet browser for non-work-related issues. Often times an employer disciplines an employee for spending personal time at work on the Internet or allegedly misusing company resources for maintaining personal information (e.g., photos, resumes, personal documents, etc.) on a work computer. Employers can monitor Internet usage and what seems acceptable to an employer one day (or common in the office) can turn unacceptable when employment problems later develop between an employee and the company. Be especially mindful if the employer maintains and has made its employees aware of company computer or Internet usage policies.
8. Avoid Conversations With Co-Workers About Employment Issues.
It is important to be careful in conversations about employment issues with co-workers, even if conversing with friends inside or outside of the workplace.
It is often the case that an employee tells his/her private information to a coworker who then provides it to a supervisor or others at work where it eventually makes its way back to a problem supervisor or HR. We have seen this occur even amongst close friends at work who may not intend to turn this information over to management or HR.
9. Be Patient, Resolution Could Take Time.
Employers and HR are not required to conduct quick investigations or reviews into HR complaints. In fact, the longer an HR investigation or review takes, the greater the chance that the employer or HR will forget about the issue and drop it. However, we have seen some employees who are so eager for the investigation or review to be complete that they actually cause HR to complete its investigation or review quicker than usual. If an employee reminds HR or inquires about the status of an investigation or review, it can increase the chance that the employer will actually complete the investigation or review when the issue would have otherwise disappeared or resolved itself over time.
10. Consult With an Attorney Early and Before Employment Problems Worsen.
This really should be the first step when an employee begins to experience employment problems with an employer. Consulting with an attorney gives an employee peace of mind as to his/her legal options and assists the employee with sound strategy and legal advice and, often times, without the employer ever becoming aware of the specific workplace problems at issue.
These are some general tips. Employees in this type of situation should discuss these types of issues with an attorney who is knowledgeable in employment and labor law. Please be advised that this information is strictly for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you are interested in obtaining legal advice please contact our office at www.berrylegal.com or (703) 668-0070, if you would like to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys.