Why and When Employees Sue


The employer-employee relationship is complicated.  Technical competence; objective performance measures; work approach; relations with supervisors; and relations with coworkers combine to create the employee relations atmosphere.  As if that weren’t enough there are generational dynamics and continuous workplace changes to manage .  So many opportunities for things to go wrong!

Despite all this and some increase in employment-related complaints, most employees just show up and do their best.  The majority of employees never even consider bringing legal action against an employer even when they are cranky and unhappy.  So what is it that pushes employees from disgruntlement to adversary?

Employees don’t generally leap from contentment to complainant.  They gradually begin to move into a disgruntled mindset when they disagree with a company decision or performance assessment.  Once disgruntled, employees are much more likely to consider taking action against their employer. When an employee feels wronged he/she is more likely to think they are owed money/damages. They may want to punish the employer by bringing public scrutiny through a lawsuit.

But let’s go back to the time when they were first upset. Employees will try for a while to get satisfaction through channels but if the company doesn’t respond with consideration, at some turning point they can decide no one is listening. Perhaps their boss minimizes their concerns or an informal complaint is dismissed without explanation. In my experience during these key decision points in the employee’s thought process a considerate and respectful intervention can stall or reverse the downward attitude slide.  I notice that some HR professionals and more astute supervisors have an instinct for picking up on slight shifts in employee frame of mind. This perception is incredibly valuable in both heading off lawsuits but also just plain maintaining a positive overall culture. Unfortunately these opportunities are so often missed or misunderstood.

Common sources of employee disgruntlement

  • When a long service employee is reprimanded, performance counseled or terminated;
  • Real or perceived general disrespect;
  • Real or perceived discrimination;
  • Real or perceived retaliation for doing what the employee thinks is morally right or fair.

Terminations and decisions that employees won’t necessarily embrace can be delivered in a respectful, calm and compassionate manner.  You have to decide which of these postures to take:

1. We are terminating you because you are a terrible employee and your performance is horrendous.  You did this, you did that . . .; or

2. You are a good person and in the right position you will be successful.  This isn’t a great fit for you . . .  Let me make sure the transition is considerate and offer you help with the transition, benefits, etc. Would you like time during the day to work on your resume? How can we help you land on your feet?

The psychological and financial pain to a company who has suffered a financial judgment or who felt backed into a financial settlement with someone they see as undeserving is powerful. I can separate the world of employers into those who have made settlements and those who have never faced that situation. Their responses to subtle changes in employee attitude will be discernibly different. Any company who has paid $40,000 to an undeserving employee to settle a frivolous and unfair lawsuit knows it’s worth paying attention to early, informal complaints.

Best practice prevention

Lawsuits are prevented by good communication; managing employee expectations with clarity; supervisory training; and prompt, clear negative responses to supervisors and coworkers who relate to others with abuse and intimidation.  Respectful, thoughtful responses to employee complaints and addressing whatever they key issue is with concrete corrections will greatly reduce your chances of being sued.

Here are some additional materials of interest

Six Reasons Why Employees Sue Their Boss

Why Employees Sue

Dissatisfied Employees Sue at Record Pace

As always, good luck.

(c) BCSPublishing 2012 all rights reserved

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