YOU'RE FIRED! But Wait, My Life Isn't a Reality TV Show....
Raquel had been a rising star in her company since her hiring four years ago. She'd landed major clients, bonuses, and was recognized regionally and nationally for her work. Despite the recession, Raquel's life was laden with hard work and well-deserved pay. She had made the necessary sacrifices of delaying marriage and relocating three times, while reaping the financial rewards.
Raquel was at the height of her earning power. Her performance record was so solid, no wonder she didn't flinch when her boss retired. So of course, the new boss, Jacob would value her as a longstanding member of his team, even though she was passed over for his position. Or so she thought.
All teams go through the aches and pains of adjusting to a new leader. Raquel felt that the tension between Jacob and the rest of the team was no different. Everyone was adjusting to his new communication protocols, and reporting expectations. Therefore, when Raquel walked into her weekly meeting with him, with the director of Human Resources present, she could only anticipate a conference about one of her direct reports. The meeting was short -- but not sweet.
"You're fired," Jacob blurted out. "We are going in another direction. Budget cuts."
Raquel was stunned. Clearly this was a joke. She had earned letters of commendation the last three quarters straight. Her slack-jawed reaction allowed Jacob to continue:
"You can have the next two hours to clean out your desk. We already cut off your Internet service. It's 3 p.m. now. You should be out by 5 p.m."
Raquel had nothing to say. What was this, some reality show? When will the commentator come out? "Candid Camera."... "You've been PUNKED."... Something?!
The HR Director did and said nothing. Jacob got up and went to the window. "You have two hours."
Raquel's mind was spinning. She had just built an addition on her house with a second mortgage. Sure, she could call headhunters, but she couldn't move. Budget cuts? But they just hired two staff member last week. Budget cuts?
Raquel's story unfortunately is played out every day in this recession. What Raquel's manager and many other managers don't realize is that Raquel and other jilted employees feel betrayed and start looking for ways to be heard. At this point, they have nothing to lose by pursuing a lawsuit. More than ever, employees know the federal discrimination laws, and know where to file a complaint -- either with the EEOC or an attorney. Employees who are well educated or advanced in their careers are more likely to file a complaint, because they command higher salaries, and possible damages and back-pay rewards are lucrative.
What should employees do while on the job or after termination? Here are several strategies for those considering filing a discrimination lawsuit.
While Raquel was still on the job she took basic steps to document her performance by:
- Keeping all records, notes, letters and emails that discussed her personal performance. Organizations have a responsibility to keep staff updated about job performance expectations.
- Keeping a copy of these performance records AT HOME. As in Raquel's case, a fired employee's Internet, Intranet and computer access is often the first thing an employer shuts down. However, employees don't have a right to proprietary information, only information on their performance.
- Professionally confirming the boss's expectations and objectives in writing, shortly after meetings. If an employee has questions, or believes expectations are unfair, she should calmly and logically express these concerns when the expectations are established. Don't wait for months down the road, when unreasonable expectations can't be achieved.
- Reading the employee handbook, no matter how boring. Know the rules that the employer is playing by. They are responsible for adhering to their own policies as well.
Raquel was terminated. Being fired is like being punched at recess by the school bully. Most people don't see it coming, and feel knocked off their feet in front of the world. Despite her emotional state, she took a deep breath, regrouped and considered her options:
- Raquel did some soul searching. Perhaps this was divine intervention. Was this an opportunity for another career path or to follow other interests?
- But, on the other hand, those copious notes regarding her job performance were worth their weight in gold as she considered a wrongful termination complaint. Her notes revealed a pattern of gender discrimination toward her since her last boss retired. First of all, she was more qualified than Jacob.
Once Raquel assessed the situation and decided to pursue legal action with a formal complaint, she had two options:
- Seek the EEOC/and state human relations commission to file a complaint. This option cost Raquel nothing. They conduct the investigation and require the employer to explain why there was a termination. The complaint must BE CLEAR. Do you believe you were fired because of your gender, your race, your age (if over 40)? You must be explicit with this claim and provide documentation of reoccurring instances in which your membership in a protected class (for example, your gender, race, age, religion, disability, background, pregnancy) was a compelling element in your termination. If the EEOC doesn't resolve the matter in a year, the terminated employee will often receive a right to sue later, and can proceed to option No. 2.
- Seek an employment attorney. Whether the employee comes straight to this option OR waits to get the right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, the complaining employee still needs to have her or his ducks in a row. The duration of the average lawsuit is 22 months, but in some cases, carries on much longer. With a strong case, stay with it, because it can provide vindication. After 26 months of paperwork exchanges, conciliation meetings and mediation, Raquel had proven a clear case of gender discrimination. With the assistance of an attorney, she was awarded a year and half of back pay, less attorney's fees. During the course of the case, Jacob faced two other gender discrimination complaints and resigned from his post before Raquel's settlement was final.
In 2010, the EEOC reported close to 100,000 new discrimination cases. Every day, about 550 small businesses are tagged with discrimination lawsuits.
Have you or someone you know experienced discrimination or unfair treatment at work (based on age, race, gender, disability, religion or national origin)? We would like to hear your story.
For more detailed information on this topic and how people have handled various types of workplace discrimination, see www.diversitytrainingconsultants.com.
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