Welcome to Asked&Answered, our monthly column in which Ellen Mehling, METRO's Job Bank Manager and Career Consultant, tackles reader questions on job hunting and career development. If you'd like to send Ellen a question, please visit our submission form.
Q: I've worked in several situations now where a formal HR department was not available to its employees, due to the small size of the businesses in question. For myself and others who have found ourselves without means for high-quality professional advice in stickier workplace situations: what can we do to ensure that we are treated fairly and equitably while at work? How can we ensure that the policies that affect our working lives stay within ethical and legal boundaries?
A: This can be very tricky. Unpleasant things that happen in the workplace may not be illegal regardless of whether or not they are unethical (and there may be differences of opinion regarding what is and isn't unethical). If what is going on is not illegal there may not be much that can be done about it, unfortunately. You may not have the workplace rights you think you do, and even if someone else is doing wrong, it may not be advisable to take action.
If there is an issue or problem, the first step is to speak with your supervisor to see if your questions can be answered. The issue may be resolved "locally" before going elsewhere. If the problem has to be taken to anyone else, you are likely to be asked if you have attempted to work this out with your manager.
If that doesn’t solve the problem (or if the supervisor’s behavior is the problem):
If you have one, speak with a trusted, objective, discreet mentor: someone with a level head and years of experience at that workplace and/or with similar situations. Ask if similar situations have come up in the past and how they were handled, and what the likely results are of various courses of action. If you know someone who works in HR at another workplace, that person may be another source of advice.
Document everything you can.
If you are in a union, speak to your union representative.
If you have a contract, make sure you are familiar with every word.
You may find it necessary to seek legal advice. If you do, you'll want it to be from a lawyer who specializes in employment law in your state. Know that if you go "over your boss's head" or initiate legal action, you will be burning bridges, and not just with your boss. Think long and hard before taking any step that cannot be undone.
Note: Remember that even if a workplace has an HR department, they may not always be able to be an advocate for the employee.
The following helpful resources and the above advice are for your reference only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional legal advice:
- U.S. Department of Labor Employment Law Guide
- AskAManager's Q&As related to legal issues in the workplace
- Blog posts/Q&As from Donna Ballman re: legal issues in the workplace
- Evil HR Lady's Q&As related to legal issues in the workplace
- Your Rights in the Workplace, Barbara Repa, J.D. June 2010, 9th Edition, Nolo (book)