No Employee is Indispensable

One of the character traits of lawyers is that because we often see the negative side of life as we tend to observe matters in a pessimistic manner equivalent to viewing a glass half empty versus a glass half full. On the other hand, clients often view matters in an overly optimistic manner, which is often not based in reality.

For example, in our employment law practice, we often encounter clients who have been terminated from their jobs, often causing them surprise and shock. This surprise and shock is caused because they felt they were indispensable to their employer.

If I have learned one thing during the course of my legal career in the labor, employment, and civil rights fields, it is that no one is indispensable to their employer. Pennsylvania is an employee-at-will state, and although employees sometimes have recourse to appeal, contest, or complain about their termination, this is often a lengthy and costly process, if done correctly. Attorneys are often able to expand severance packages which employees have been offered, but a severance package often does not replace one’s job, or the loss of self-esteem which an employee often experiences as a result of being selected for a layoff or a termination.

Therefore, I offer some suggestions from a legal perspective about what one should or should not be doing as an employee.

  • Although many employers advertise that they have an “open door policy” and state that they welcome ideas and suggestions, and they want to hear about problems you are having with other staff or supervisors, I recommend that employees should be very careful about stepping through that door, and if an employee decides to step through that door, be very careful about what one says. Many employers do not want to learn about their employee’s opinions, and especially do not want to hear complaints about other staff. Among the clients I encounter, the employee who files the complaint against the “evil” supervisor, is usually the person who is terminated.
  • Do not assume that because you are a long-term employee (and I mean even upwards of 25 years) , that your efforts have earned the company a lot of money, or that your efforts have saved the company a lot of money, that your employer will not lay you off, eliminate your position, or dismiss you. Unfortunately, the days of guaranteed long-term employment ended many years ago, and do not appear to be returning.
  • What is the difference between insubordination and disagreeing with your supervisor or manager? The difference is solely in the opinion of the employer. Employers do not appreciate being told that you do not agree with their opinions, do not agree with other staff they work with or supervise, and do not appreciate hearing that you are not going to do things the way they have asked you to do them because you do not agree that is the way they should be done. Let me repeat: no one is indispensable, and you can find yourself terminated because you have voiced your disagreement.
  • Although most employers have policies regarding sexual harassment and hostile work environment, and urge reports of same, they are rarely pleased to hear these complaints. This is usually because they feel they must spend time and resources investigating the complaint, and they risk making a decision which will come back to bite them in the long-run. Remember that the person complaining about this behavior, and the person who is complained about, have equal rights, so if the person complained about is disciplined or terminated, that person may allege that said action was undertaken wrongfully by the employer, and the employer will have to defend themselves, costing them more time and money.
  • Do not assume that human resources professionals are on your side. From my many years of experience, the vast majority of the professionals I have dealt with are concerned about their own jobs first, and your job second. They try to balance making it appear as if they are “investigating” your issues, while at the same time trying not to offend the employer by spending time and resources on your matter.
  • I wish I had a dollar for every time an employee client tells me that their employer can’t do something “because it is illegal”. First, although there may be laws against engaging in certain types of activities, generally the enforcement of those laws is up to the individual employee’s attorney, as government agencies don’t always have the time, money, staff, knowledge or inclination to handle matters, and if they do handle matters, it may take years to do so. Second, people often misinterpret the law. Each case is based on an independent fact pattern and is subject to many vagaries, so what someone reads on the Internet often does not apply to the facts of their case, or may depend on the laws of different states than the relevant one.

In conclusion, and continuing on with viewing employment matters as a glass half empty, my advice to all employees is to tread very carefully in their positions, because they are not indispensable to their employers: remember, length of service makes no difference if the employer decides to eliminate your job for some reason, do not rely on human resources representatives to be of valuable assistance, and consult a lawyer when you feel there is something inappropriate or peculiar happening in your workplace. It is preferable to consult a lawyer if you have doubts about what is happening in your workplace, and your position, than wait until you have been disciplined or terminated.