Many employment lawsuits could be prevented if employers focused on certain aspects of their workplace environment and recognized employee warning signs. While not every employment-related lawsuit is avoidable, employers can reduce litigation risk by identifying and understanding these top reasons why employees sue their employers.
1. My boss doesn’t listen.
Employee work issues may lead to litigation if they are ignored. Employees often just need to vent to management, and while this may seem like an unproductive use of time, it’s important for supervisors to listen so they can offer solutions and make employees feel heard. Otherwise, a lawyer or union organizer will be more than happy to provide a friendly ear to an employee.
Good listening and dispute-resolution skills are vital for front-line supervisors who have the ability to snuff out problems before they start. Such skills, coupled with a supervisor’s understanding of company policy, will allow a supervisor to recognize and properly respond to issues related to harassment, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other employment laws.
2. I had no idea I wasn’t doing a good job.
Performance issues can cause more than just production problems when inexperienced or untrained managers fail to confront poor-performing employees and address their shortcomings. These problems can be avoided by coaching managers and supervisors to adopt positive communication skills and ensure employees receive fair and honest evaluations.
3. My co-workers gossiped about me after I left.
This is a common problem with an easy solution. Former employees do not want to be the subject of co-worker gossip and will inevitably learn of such gossip through friends or social media. Accordingly, employers may limit discussion of former employees in the workplace while being mindful of certain federal, state and local laws that may impact employee speech.
4. My employer is saying bad things about me to prospective employers.
When a former employee obtains new employment, the employee may not be as upset with the former employer and is less likely to pursue a lawsuit. A prudent employer will assist a former employee in gaining new employment by limiting reference information to dates of employment, job title and duties, and last rate of pay (where permitted by law).
5. Other people got away with the same thing.
Inconsistent discipline fosters an environment ripe for discrimination claims and union organizing. Even if an employer did not engage in illegal discrimination when disciplining or terminating an employee, it must show that its decision was not based on a protected characteristic such as age, disability, national origin, race, religion or sex. Such a showing may prove particularly difficult when employees outside of the complaining employee’s protected class were treated differently. Employers should avoid this predicament by strictly applying their policies and disciplinary procedures.
6. My co-workers were so rude they made me quit.
Although federal law does not require employers to provide employees with a civil and polite workplace, most employees assume that their employer is legally required to do so. Employers that maintain a friendly and positive work environment may avoid situations where a former employee claims to be singled out by co-workers based on a protected characteristic.
7. My boss is a jerk.
Employees wishing to get revenge on a mean boss often seek out an employment attorney. The employee’s attorney will attempt to connect the manager’s behavior to an employment law violation. Employers should pay close attention to employee morale and should identify and coach managers and supervisors who strain the employment relationship.
8. I was retaliated against for complaining.
Retaliation is one of the most common claims in employment-related lawsuits. The importance of not retaliating against an employee who complains about illegal activities cannot be overstated. Employers should maintain strong complaint reporting and investigation policies that protect employees from retaliation and ensure managerial employees are well-trained in the complaint and investigation process.
9. I couldn’t explain why I got fired or laid off.
Employees are usually embarrassed after they are let go and may not admit their shortcomings to family and friends. Some employees may even manufacture an excuse for the termination by accusing the former employer of discrimination or other illegal motivation. Such excuses may ultimately force an employee into filing a lawsuit to save face. Employers can address such circumstances by agreeing to keep the reason for termination confidential and even, when appropriate, providing the employee with an excuse should anyone question the termination. Employers should also consider showing the employee the evidence that it may produce in a lawsuit.
10. I was the victim of discrimination.
Whenever an employee cannot explain an employment action, the employee—or the employee’s attorney—may assume it is because the employee was a victim of discrimination based on a protected characteristic under federal, state or local law. Accordingly, it is imperative that employers maintain robust Equal Employment Opportunity policies, treat employees equally in all employment actions, and accurately document employee achievements and performance issues. Finally, and most importantly, employers should ensure that managers and supervisors receive proper training that allows them to effectively and consistently apply policies, communicate with employees, and address employee issues before they develop into potential legal concerns.
With proper planning, training and managing, employers can reduce risks associated employment lawsuits. As always, employers should consult with their labor and employment counsel. Experienced counsel will identify common management mistakes and assist employers in developing a workplace environment that not only reduces the risk of legitimate employment lawsuits but also prevents meritless lawsuits.