A worker worries about being fired just because a new manager doesn’t like him. Here’s why the law can’t help but other strategies might.
Q: I have a new boss who is very unfair and abrasive to everyone. Hypothetically, would he be allowed to fire me just because he doesn’t like me? And if he did, what could I do procedurally and legally to fight back? — Anonymous
A: As a legal matter, unless you have an employment contract that says otherwise, he could absolutely fire you because he doesn’t like you. Or because he doesn’t like your haircut, or for no reason at all. And, again as a legal matter, there’s probably nothing you could do about it.
There are, of course, laws designed to punish and prevent forms of discrimination — based on race, gender or disability, for instance. But as Laura Beth Nielsen, a sociology professor at Northwestern University and a research professor at the American Bar Foundation, put it: “Being a jerk is not illegal.”
It’s worth expanding on this point a bit, because the Workologist hears from many readers who seem to believe the rule of law might resolve all manner of workplace hassles and discontents. Nielsen, who is one of the authors of the recent book “Rights on Trial,” a critique of workplace discrimination law, has encountered the same phenomenon in her research.
“Plaintiffs’ lawyers say this is the most important thing that ordinary people do not understand about the law,” she said. “You do not have the right to a fair workplace. You have the right to a nondiscriminatory workplace.”
Depending on the details of your employment, however, you might have some options. If the boss is taking actions that specifically violate company policy, or an employment contract, focus on them. A company manual specifying in elaborate corporate-speak the behavior that’s expected of you may also detail procedures that management must follow. So maybe you can pursue justice within your organization, if not the courts.
But think about this in terms of the organization, not what you find personally “unfair.” The bottom-line argument is usually the best one, Nielsen said. It might be something like: “I’m not being treated fairly, and as a result these special talents that I have and that could make the company a lot of money are being overlooked.”
Dealing with a new boss can be particularly fraught, she said. Workers often resist change, while the manager is looking to make a mark. Try to understand new expectations right away.
Even if you believe you are a victim of illegal discrimination, legal action is no easy road. This is the focus of Nielsen’s studies, and her conclusions aren’t exactly uplifting. Discrimination can be hard to prove, and companies have far greater resources than most employees.
Even workers who win their cases often feel dissatisfied: Maybe they expected a bigger monetary award, or maybe all they really wanted was to get their old job back and return to “normal,” which in the wake of a lengthy legal fight is most likely impossible.
Does that mean nobody should ever sue? Of course not. The pursuit of justice can be noble and necessary. But if you want to “fight back” through the courts, understand the stakes.
A very personal expense issue
Q: I relocated for work from the East Coast to California. When I travel back East for work, I extend the trip to visit family, and cover extra expenses myself.
On my last such trip, I visited family before starting a week of East Coast work. Unfortunately, my partner back in California, who suffers from depression and is a recovering alcoholic, relapsed and tried to kill himself. This happened during the working portion of my trip. I had to cut that short and scramble to get back to California, and this entailed some additional expenses, such as a rental car and an airport hotel room that I used for a few hours to do some work before catching the next available flight.
My employers do not understand the severity of what happened to him and my supporting role. Should I seek reimbursement for any of the expenses? Or should I bear those costs myself? — Anonymous
A: Your personal situation sounds really difficult, and it’s impressive that you’re able to manage it. But frankly I wonder if the expenses related to this incident are the real issue here.
I suspect what really matters is how much you want your employers to know about your situation. That depends on the kind of relationship you have (or want to have) with your managers. I can imagine good reasons to keep some distance — as long as you still have the latitude, for instance, to cut a work trip short when you need to. In that case, you should just bear these costs yourself.
I can also imagine feeling that it might be reassuring if a trusted boss knew more. Making the argument for these expenses would entail a pretty serious conversation. But I think deciding whether you want to have that conversation is the issue you should reflect on.
Sorting out who pays for this one hotel room is not the problem; it’s a symptom of something deeper. Focus on that.