Although most of my career coaching practice is focused on both, helping my clients land the jobs they are after and on improving their career once they land, occasionally some clients run into problems that affect their job or even their career. In most such cases they come to me when they realize that they are in jeopardy of losing their job or not getting something they had expected or were promised (a bonus, a promotion, or some other benefit or reward). In rare cases my clients feel that their employer is in violation of law in some way (even maternity leave or FMLA). In some other such cases they come to me when they get informed that they are going to be put on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) as a result of their continued “non-performance.” Most people know that a PIP is the last stop in a series of remedial measures management takes to terminate an employee. I know of no case where a PIP resulted in saving the employee for continued employment as a result of their performance recovery.
When a client arrives at such a point with their employer they often ask me to advise them on a legal course they can pursue to both, save their job and to retaliate back to right the wrong and disabuse their situation. Although I expressly tell my clients in such situations that I am not in a position to offer them any legal advise and that they should see a practicing employment lawyer I’d like to provide some guidelines on when to see an employment lawyer and how to benefit from such a consultation. These observations are based on the labor laws in the US and not in any other country. The US labor laws are perhaps the most employer-friendly in many respects compared to such laws in most European countries, Japan, and other geographies. So, this blog is mostly focused on the situations that involve US employment.
Consider seeing a lawyer:
1. If you are starting a new job and when the employment agreement involves stock options, severance agreements, and other clauses it is best to see a lawyer before you sign the employment agreement, even if you think you understand what the contract says. This is particularly true for senior executives, where such agreements have many elements that require expertise in compensation, termination, and how the benefits are structured. In my practice when I am dealing with VP or higher-level clients I ask them to see an employment attorney to make sure that their interest are protected before signing the new employment contract.
2. If the employer terminates you in violation of the agreement that you signed.
3. If the employer does not pay you or withholds some or all your benefits.
4. If you feel that you have been discriminated against because of your ethnicity, race, or any other factor. The same applies if you have been sexually harassed in your job and you have documented such cases during your employment. If you find yourself in such situations it is best to see a lawyer early in your encounters so that they can guide you on what they need to protect your case and prevail in a court of law. Follow their advice and decide if you want to proceed with legal action recommended by them.
5. If you receive a treatment at your place of work that is in violation of the employer policies and you are unable to make any headway with your management. Before you proceed on this front make sure that you have read the HR policies and that you have brought such violations to the attention of your manager and HR.
6. If your career is adversely affected by the express actions of your employer and those actions are now causing you difficulties in finding your next employment.
Consider an alternative to seeing a lawyer:
1. When you have completed your PIP and have been given a notice of termination. Most companies go through a rigorous process of remedy before a PIP is put in place. If you think that this process has been arbitrary and unfair, then you must consider seeing a lawyer early in the process and not when you are being asked to resign or being terminated.
2. When you are able to work with your immediate manager and correct the errant situation without escalating further and with some help from HR. Most HR representatives are able to use their discretion to protect their company’s reputation and give you the benefit of the doubt. They may even work with you to seek your transfer to another manager and see if things will change in your favor.
3. When your boss has not provided you with an Annual Performance Review (APR) for several years and has not given you a salary increase. If you have been singled out from such requirements and you can prove that others in your workgroup have received regular reviews and raises then it is a different matter, worthy of a visit to a lawyer. Otherwise, work with your boss and seek your own remedy. You may want to check on your company policy on such matters and escalate it to your HR representative.
4. When you are promised a promotion and when things change. Most such promises are made orally and it is difficult to prove that you were intentionally shortchanged or that there was malice involved.
5. When you feel stuck in your career and others around you are passing you by. In such cases have a meeting with your manager and openly ask them about why you are not able to get the promotion or advancement others are getting in your group. Evaluate their response and then decide if you want to escalate the matter and take it to a lawyer.
In cases where you have been a victim of bad management decisions or have a clear case of discrimination or harassment seeing a lawyer can help you sort through your situation. In other cases make sure that you understand the implications of taking legal action against your employer by getting a lawyer involved when the case is marginally winnable. The downside to getting involved with a lawyer in such cases in that you lose control over your situation, ending up with taking a legal course of action. Also, hire a lawyer after checking their credentials, otherwise, you may end up hiring yet another lawyer to deal with the mess the first one created. In the case of such messes you end up paying for it with your reputation, money, and even your career. The outcome of such pursuits can often be unpredictable with your having to bear the cost unless you find a lawyer who can take on your case on contingency. In marginal cases the lawyer makes their fees and you end up going through the hassle of dealing with the legal mess that is sometimes difficult to handle. You may also develop a reputation as a litigious employee, which may jeopardize your future employment prospects. So, do not make such decisions out of spite or revenge and do not make them casually.