3 Reasons to Get Things in Writing in Employment Law

posted by Daniel Stevens  |  Nov 7, 2019 12:51 PM [EST]  |  applies to California

Many people are excited at the prospect of a new job, and most do not predict it will lead to anything but income and perhaps some satisfaction at work well done. People do not usually expect for their employment to lead to litigation. However, as any employment lawyer could attest to, sometimes the unexpected happens and a lawsuit becomes the best chance at justice. When employers violate the rights of their employees, they open themselves up to potentially severe legal repercussions. Of course, even the most sincere, wronged employees might not win their case if they cannot provide evidence for their claims. For that reason, it is vitally important to get things in writing whenever possible. The following list provides some of the best reasons to do this, and the accompanying examples should demonstrate the potential significance of the advice.

  1. Written complaints go a long way
    When something objectionable happens in the workplace, such as discrimination or sexual harassment, the number one thing employees can do to protect themselves from it happening again is to file a formal complaint. Employers should have policies laying out how to navigate the complaint process, and they must have a way to go around the immediate supervisor in case that person is the problem. Of course, the hope is that an official grievance will lead to a satisfactory resolution, but when that is not the case, the written complaint will serve as evidence that the employee notified the employer, meaning the employer can be held responsible for not addressing the issue. The following example illustrates this idea:
    Kyle works for a paper company. His supervisor, Thomas, has always been a little inappropriate at work. One day, Thomas makes a sexually explicit joke about Kyle’s fiancée. Kyle does not find this funny and lets Thomas know, but Kyle’s reaction seems to encourage Thomas’ behavior. Kyle files a formal complaint with human resources about these jokes. A human resources employee speaks with Thomas, but his behavior does not change. Kyle talked to a sexual harassment lawyer and files another complaint and, again, Kyle continues to suffer Thomas’ crude jokes as nothing changes. Kyle hired a sexual harassment attorney and files a sexual harassment lawsuit against the paper company and his multiple written complaints help convince the judge that the company is liable.
    Also important to note is that, though it may seem intimidating to file a complaint at work, employers cannot legally retaliate against an employee for doing so. If an employee is fired for making a complaint in good faith, the employer can be sued for wrongful termination. In these cases, it is clear how the written complaint is useful for the wronged employee.
  2. Contracts can be oral but they probably shouldn’t be
    When being hired for a new job, employees should generally try to make sure that their employment contract is in writing. This practice is so common that many people may not know that contracts not in writing can actually be legally binding. However, oral or other unwritten contracts can and do occur. Of course, they are much more difficult to manage when it comes to breaches of contract. While not impossible to sue for breach of contract with a non-written contract, it is much easier, legally speaking, to win a breach of contract as an employee when the contract was written. An example of this can help demonstrate the significance:
    Rosalie works as an internal decorator. She decides to take on a new client who wants their new house decorated in a particular style. Rosalie consults with an employment attorney and writes up a contract that specifies the terms of their agreement, including the kind of work she will do and the payment she will receive. Her employer, Kris, signs the contract and Rosalie begins working. Rosalie begins to decorate the place in the requested rustic style. However, Kris tells her he has changed his mind, that he wants it decorated in a modern style. Rosalie has already done significant work in the rustic style and lets Kris know that it is too late to change his mind. Kris is angry but allows Rosalie to finish. However, he then refuses to pay Rosalie because he claims she did not do what they had agreed upon. Rosalie speaks with an employment lawyer and ultimately, Kris is required to pay Rosalie for her work thanks to the terms of their written contract.
  3. Emails summarizing important meetings might be even more important later
    Another good habit for employees to get into is to recap oral meetings via email so that there is no confusion later about what was said. This habit can come in handy in the event of disputes, like in the following example:
    Valencia just exited a meeting with her boss, wherein she was congratulated for being a good leader and handling conflicts professionally. Valencia immediately sends an email to her boss, recapping what they discussed, including that she should continue to handle conflicts in her department as she had been doing, by following formal procedures. Months later, Valencia talked to a professional wrongful termination lawyer then she is in the midst of a lawsuit against her employer for wrongfully terminating her after she notified authorities of illegal activity her company was engaging in, namely fraud. The defense tries to say that she was fired not for whistle-blowing, but for being too aggressive with her subordinates during conflicts. The defense points to the incident that precipitated that meeting she and her boss had months ago, claiming that she was reprimanded for being too aggressive in conflict resolution. Valencia does not recall this and checks her records to see what really happened. Fortunately, she has a record of that email sent to her boss after the meeting noting that she was handling conflicts well, and the defense’s argument fails to convince anyone.

These are just a few of the reasons to get things in writing when it comes to work. Hopefully, the notes and emails and complaints will never need to be used as evidence in a lawsuit, but in case the unthinkable does happen, these written records may prove to be extremely valuable. For anyone who has been wronged by an employer in some way, whether through breach of contract, discrimination, wrongful termination, or something else, an experienced labor attorney can help. 

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