Think You Might Be Terminated Soon? Know Your Employment Law Rights!
Have you ever seen management teams prepare to fire someone within your organization? Were you ever terminated without notice under questionable circumstances? Unfortunately, many life science professionals have experienced a situation where they were let go from their job. Employment law involves all aspects of contracts and relationships between companies and their staff. To learn more about employment law rights, we interviewed attorney J. Daniel Cole. Daniel provided key insight regarding an organization’s legal obligations and what you can do if you think you are being set up to be fired.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, before entering the legal field?
Prior to law school, I came from a business background. I obtained an Integrative Marketing Communications degree from Mercer University and worked in an outside sales position for two years, before making the decision to obtain my law degree.
2. What is employment law? How did you decide to pursue this legal area?
Employment law is the legal practice governing all matters related to the employer and employee relationship. It covers review and negotiation of employment contracts, guidance and counseling of employment issues, restrictive covenant and non-compete matters, and ultimately review and litigation of possible legal claims, such as discrimination based on age, race, sex, religion, national origin, color, disabilities, or breach of contracts. In addition, employees often are misclassified as exempt from overtime wages, or just outright not paid proper overtime they are owed, and there are federal laws in place that allow employees to recover wages owed to them.
Early in my legal career, I was drawn to employment law. Employees are the lifeblood of any company or institution. Without a workforce, however large or small, these places would not exist. After working on behalf of companies for many years, I made the decision that I wanted to spend my career helping individuals protect their and their family’s livelihood. It is rewarding to be a part of an individual’s life and to guide individuals through the issues they encounter in their employment.
3. What should a life science professional do if they think they are being set up to be fired?
Document, document, document. My clients who have taken detailed notes and kept relevant emails, text messages, and other documentation inevitably fair better in protecting their rights if a termination occurs. It is important to save any emails or text messages that may speak to something like discrimination while you still have access to those documents. After a termination occurs, you are not going to have access to company emails or phones, and you may have forgotten dates or details of conversations.
If you believe that you are at risk of termination, it never hurts to seek guidance from an experienced employment attorney. Often, an employee can prevent a wrongful termination if they can get out in front of it. Sometimes, a bad actor is just an immediate supervisor, and upper management may not know about the unlawful employment issues you are facing. However, in the event termination does occur, a detailed and/or document supported case is always going to be better than a “he said, she said” case. Furthermore, some states are one-person consent states when it comes to audio recordings. I have had several cases where a smart, forward-thinking client caught their manager saying discriminatory things on an audio recording, and those clients have always gotten their matters resolved quickly and in their favor. However, each state is different, so consult an attorney before making audio recordings and review your company’s internal policies regarding recordings in the workplace, as violation of a company policy could create grounds for termination itself.
4. What rights does an employee have if they are let go/terminated from their full time employer?
An employee’s rights are going to vary state to state. Most states are at-will employment states, meaning that an employer can terminate an employee at anytime without cause or an employee can resign anytime without cause. However, an employer cannot take an adverse action or terminate an employee because of his or her race, sex, national origin, color, religion, age, disability, or in retaliation for raising complaints about these issues, among other protections. An employee also cannot be terminated for raising complaints about unpaid overtime or for discussing their employment with fellow co-workers.
It is important to remember that you do not have to sign anything if your employer terminates you. Often, employers will bring an employee into a room and tell them that they can sign a release and resign or be terminated and have that on their record. After you have signed a release, it is going to be very difficult to assert any claims against your former employer in most instances. You always have the right to seek guidance from an attorney before you agree to any severance or waiver of your claims.
5. How should the terminated employee act or communicate with former co-workers, still employed by their previous organization?
It is okay for terminated employees to communicate or talk with former co-workers. However, a terminated employee should not discuss their case or circumstances leading to their termination with former co-workers without the guidance of counsel. Any statements a terminated employee makes can be used against them in their case, and an employer may have access to former co-workers emails or telephones. In addition, even the closest former co-workers often get concerned with self-preservation and may provide information you shared in confidence with the employer’s attorneys. On the other hand, with guidance of counsel, former co-workers may be willing to provide helpful statements in support of your case.
6. What general advice would you give to life science professionals when it comes to employment law?
The overwhelming majority of employees will never encounter legal issues during their careers. Employees who focus on providing a strong work product to their employer are going to be assets to their employer and generally will have long and successful careers. It is important for employees not to create or give employers a reason to start considering disciplinary actions or termination. If the employer has a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason to discipline or terminate an employee, it is going to be very difficult for that employee to pursue a case.
However, in the event an employee believes they are being discriminated against due to a protected attribute, are not being paid properly, or generally just have concerns about something happening in the workplace, should seek the guidance of an experienced attorney. It is important to keep in mind that you only have 180 days to preserve your case in most circumstances, so you should discuss your situation with an attorney as soon as you think something inappropriate has occurred.
Many aspects of employment law will vary depending on the state you work in. In general, it’s wise to document everything you can while you’re still employed. Collect copies of emails, phone records, and notes for yourself. Consider speaking with an employment law attorney as soon as possible, to discuss any suspicions or actions you’ve witnessed that might be pertinent to your situation. What could you do now to protect yourself if you think negative action is taking place?
Porschia Parker is a Certified Coach, Professional Resume Writer, and Founder of Fly High Coaching. (https://www.fly-highcoaching.com) She empowers ambitious professionals and motivated executives to add $10K on average to their salaries.
J. Daniel Cole is an attorney with Parks, Chesin & Walbert in Atlanta, Georgia, specializing in employment law. He regularly guides executives, professionals, and other individuals through employment issues they are facing and has a proven track record of success on behalf of his clients. Mr. Cole’s practice includes contract review and negotiations, guidance and counseling of employment issues, restrictive covenant litigation, and litigation on behalf of employees who have been discriminated against or not paid proper wages owed to them under federal law.