I am frequently contacted by persons who are astonished that they have lost their jobs for what they allege is retaliation for complaining about their supervisors, complaining about some company policy or complaining about their work conditions. What they have in common is that they all believe that their right to complain in general is somehow legally protected. That is certainly not the case for the most part, unless there is some type of law which provides this protection, usually known as a whistleblower law, or there is some legal protection for reporting waste or fraud to a government agency, like the IRS, or an oversight agency in the security industry. Those laws have very specific requirements, and still cannot protect an employee’s job, but they may provide, often many years down the road, a financial award for the reporting person. Workers may be protected if they discuss terms and conditions of employment with one another, but once again, a government agency, such as the National Labor Relations Board, would have to agree to accept their complaint, and the process involved would generally be lengthy and usually not altogether satisfying.
Aside from these limited protections, most employees should be careful about what they complain about, as it may cost them their job. Unless there is some type of discrimination involved, in which case an employee is able to file a complaint with a government agency, an employee has no protection from being terminated. Filing a complaint of discrimination with a government agency also does not protect one’s job, and although employers are not supposed to retaliate against the employee filing the complaint, they often do. Also, even if the employee thinks it isn’t fair that he was terminated and the person he complained about was retained, there is no law that prevents this selection process unless there is discrimination involved. There is not a national workplace anti-harassment law as many employees think there is, and harassment must usually be tied to some protection available under the civil rights laws. Although an employer may have an anti-harassment policy in place, that policy may not have any “teeth” under the law.
I tell these persons that if they had contacted me during the time frame in which they were making the complaint I would have suggested that unless the complaint was extremely important, I may have suggested they not make it at all, or tell them they should have stopped the process if their employer asked them not to pursue it or made an attempt to resolve it, even if the employee wasn’t happy with the attempt. In some cases, I suggest that a lawyer should make the complaint as a buffer between the employee and the employer, and I have been able to save many jobs in this manner, as employers are often reluctant to retaliate against employees if a lawyer is already involved.
Employees are also frequently astonished when they learn that their job is not theirs for life. Pennsylvania is an employment at will state, which means that an employee can usually leave a job at his discretion, unless it violates a contract he has signed, with the converse being that an employer has broad discretion to terminate an employee. The usual response I receive when I ask the employee why, if their situation is so difficult at work, they don’t look for another job, besides the responses that it is a difficult economy, is that they don’t see why they are the one who should leave.
However, a side effect of continuing to complain when an employer asks you to stop, or feels the situation has already been resolved, is that the employer, in addition to terminating the employee, opposes their claim for unemployment compensation and alleges that the employee has committed some willful misconduct which prohibits them from receiving unemployment compensation. This process often results in delay in receipt of compensation, and possibly loss of compensation if the hearing referee rules in the employer’s favor.
Therefore, before one decides they are going to raise issues based on principle, one had better determine the possibility of being terminated, losing unemployment compensation benefits, and receiving a negative reference from their former employer.