Why do Employees Sue Their Employer? (Hint: It May Not Be For the Reasons You Think!)

By Jonathan K. Driggs, Attorney at Law, P.C.
As a result of almost 19 years of experience as an employment law attorney, I’ve learned that employees don’t necessarily sue their employer because a law was violated.  They often sue their employer because they feel a negative human emotion—and then go look for a law that fits their particular complaint.  Thus, an employer can minimize the risk of expensive lawsuits by keeping the following “human factors” in mind:

 

  1. It’s not just what happens, but how it happens.   Employers have to do difficult things at times, like discipline and fire employees.  But how these situations are handled can make all the difference when it comes to the potential for a claim to be filed.  I’ve had employees tell me that while they can ultimately deal with having been fired, they can’t deal with having been humiliated in the process—and that’s why they want to sue.  Always treat employees with respect and dignity… always!
  2. Left in the dark employees will jump to a more sinister conclusion.  The thought of losing one’s job can create tremendous feelings of insecurity and stress.  Employees can become very unsettled when unexplained changes occur at work (one manager recently told me that layoff rumors started circulating among his employees simply because the company started to remodel their building!)   Whenever possible, try not to leave employees in the dark about important business developments, changes, objectives and policies that impact their employment (and yes, of course there are some matters which should remain confidential and not discussed with employees).  Furthermore, adding an unnecessary surprise factor to a negative development at work only damages trust and increases the potential for legal action.
  3. Most of us suffer from the illusion that we have communicated.  One phrase I would love to see managers avoid using when speaking to employees is “you know what I mean.”  It’s a risky assumption—employees usually don’t have the same experience or perspective as the manager.  Another failed method of managerial communication comes in the form of hiding important “bad news” deep within lots of positive comments.  For example, a manager has some serious concerns about an employee’s performance, but in order to avoid hurting the employee’s feelings the manager begins by giving the employee a lot of praise (much of which may be overstated).  The manager then says, “oh, and by the way, there’s a teensy-weensy little problem I would like you to work on.”  No one should be surprised when the employee doesn’t understand the ultimate point of the manager’s convoluted message.

In counseling with my clients about termination decisions, I’ve often asked them, “do you think this employee knows that his/her job is on the line?”  Despite their assurances, the employee reacts with great surprise and outrage when terminated.  While denial on the part of the employee can be a factor, I’ve often wondered about the clarity of my client’s earlier conversations with the employee.  While most of us don’t enjoy having such conversations, we’ve got to talk to employees really openly and honestly when concerns develop.  Even if we can’t salvage the employment relationship, things will end in a more healthy way when we do so.

This article should not be construed as legal advice.  Copyright ©2011 by Jonathan K. Driggs, Attorney at Law, P.C.  All rights reserved.

Jonathan K. Driggs is an employment law attorney with over 18 years of experience, including 3 years with the Utah Labor Commission.  www.jdriggslaw.com

Call an HR Attorney as often as you need, for a low, fixed monthly fee!  In partnership with Payroll Experts, Jonathan is offering his “HR Legal Compliance Service” to Payroll Experts clients at discounted rates.  For a low, fixed monthly fee, you can call Jonathan as often as you need to get answers to your HR legal compliance and employee relations questions.  Get rid of the attorney’s ticking clock!  For more information, please contact Payroll Experts at (801) 221-3732 and ask about the “HR Legal Compliance Service.”

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