Human Resources News & Insights

Top 4 mistakes driving workers to sue employers

This should help you sleep better: Employees don’t know the law, so a minor administrative slip-up probably won’t get you sued. But this should have you worried: Something else is driving employees to file lawsuits against their employers in record numbers — and we’ve discovered what it is. 

Employee rights attorney Branigan Robertson, who operates out of Irvine, CA, recently sat down with HR Morning and shared with us the top reasons disgruntled workers call him looking to sue their employers (or ex-employers as is most often the case).

We challenge you to find the pattern here:

  1. They feel treated like dirt. Workers don’t call him because they think the law was broken, Robertson says. In fact, they don’t even know the law. They pick up the phone when they feel wronged in some way, which usually happens when they’ve been treated less than humanely. In other words, toxic workplaces — or, more specifically, toxic managers — lead to lawsuits.
  2. A manager has gone rogue. Even when your company treats the vast majority of its employees phenomenally, it only takes one rogue manager to spoil the party. Robertson says he sees this a lot: An otherwise great company has one bad manager who harasses a subordinate or terminates an employee because she got cancer. And usually, the company knew the manager was a problem but kept him on — and allowed him to continue managing people — anyway. Employment lawyers love to take on cases in which a bad manager was allowed to fester, and juries aren’t kind to employers in such cases, Robertson says.
  3. Greed has gotten out of hand. Employees realize the company needs to make money. But when an owner isn’t shy about flaunting his wealth — i.e., he’s parking his Ferrari among his workers’ Dodge Neons and Toyota Corollas and wearing $10,000 suits in the office — and then cries poverty when a person requests a $0.25 per-hour raise, that worker will sue if he or she’s ever fired.
  4. Rules aren’t enforced evenly. Employees almost always think the law is being broken when one person is punished for breaking the rules and another isn’t. This problem is magnified when one of the parties is a minority or in a different age bracket.

They key to staying out of court

Did you pick up on the pattern? In each case it’d be hard for employees to feel respected or treated fairly.

And therein lies the solution, says Robertson: Treat all of your employees – especially the crazy ones (because those are the ones who’ll sue first) – evenly and with respect, and most lawsuits can be prevented.

Not convinced? Robertson claims most workers don’t have a specific grievance in mind when they call him — because, again, they don’t know the law.

They’re just feeling abused and upset, and they’re hoping to exact some form of revenge on the perpetrators.

Robertson’s response to those who call him: “Tell me your story.” “Why where you fired?” “What did they say to you?”

From there, he looks to see if there’s a legitimate claim that can be made.

No bad blood, no case

Here’s the kicker: Robertson said even if a worker has a legitimate legal claim, he won’t take on the case if it appears the company tried to do all it could to treat the employee fairly.

It’s hard to win a lawsuit if it appears the company’s trying to do the right thing, he said.

But that requires managers behaving themselves and the company enforcing rules evenly when there are behavioral or performance problems.

The term Robertson kept using is “fundamental human dignity.”

He says when employers treat their workers like human beings, instead of disposable resources, people are far less likely to pick up the phone and call his office.

Plus, he admits it’s difficult to win cases against employers that do that. As a result, he’ll often turn them down.

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