X, a dedicated and hard worker, asks her boss for a raise. X, on more than one occasion, has boasted of never taking paid time off, of working overtime, and of winning several accolades. X, for all intents and purposes, has earned this. X confidently struts into her boss’s well-kept office, warmly greets her, and assertively (but also politely) asks her for a raise. Her smile fading, X’s boss strategically dodges X’s question and only offers to “touch base” with her about it soon. The next day, X receives a delicately worded email from the company’s Human Resources representative, expressing, in no uncertain terms, that X is fired.
Let us now turn our attention to Y. Y’s colleagues would not describe him as zealous, dutiful, or even necessary, but only as sufficient for the company and its operations. Y has lived contentedly in mediocrity and has no intention of leaving its bounds anytime soon. However, during one of his rare productive spells, Y overhears a co-worker make a racist statement. Y, mustering the remains of his productivity, reports it to his manager. The next day, Y receives a similarly delicately worded letter from HR informing him of his termination.
There is no question that both X and Y experienced retaliation. However, only one of the unfortunate workers experienced illegal retaliation. Y, the half-hearted employee, is the individual worthy of legal protections because Y explicitly engaged in protected activity. Protected activities are actions employees may engage in without fear of retaliation from supervisors or managers. Y’s protected activity was his complaint of race discrimination because it involved a protected characteristic (viz., race). Race, sex, disability, and age are all protected characteristics that cannot be subjected to discrimination. X’s complaint involved no protected activity; it did not mention a protected characteristic nor did it mention a hazardous work environment in any discernable way. X wanted a raise, while Y needed protection.
The employer, in a sense, is the master of their own corporate universe. The employer gets to decide how their office is run, who works there, how policies are set up, how investigations are handled, how employees are treated, who employees work with, and what they pay you, among very many other things. By signing your employment agreement, you are willingly entering into that universe and becoming a denizen of it, meaning that you must abide by the rules and procedures that are set in place; corporate policy becomes your stone tablet. And though the employer is the lord of this paper-filled, fluorescent-lit kingdom, there are still shackles in place. Namely, the employer must abide by the law and provide protections against unlawful discrimination, unlawful retaliation, and unlawful workplace hazards. The rest, for better or for worse, is fair game to the employer.
Annoyances at the workplace are common and often find a way to slither under our skin. However, the law is not a remedy to treat annoyances. Rather, it is a barrier to protect against unlawful discrimination and retaliation. Once that barrier is breached, it is the duty of the attorney to not only repair it, but ensure that those who shattered it are held accountable to the fullest extent. It is important to recognize the distinction between a want and a need because the former is typically outside of the realm of the illegal. One may not want to work with the noisome colleague nor want a small office nor want to be subjected to gossip, but, in entering into a new workplace, one always faces (and should expect) the risk that they may be subjected to such annoyances. On the other hand, one needs protection from discrimination and needs accommodations for a disability and needs to be safe in the workplace, and there is no employment agreement in the county that can provide otherwise. If you find yourself in such a situation where you cannot determine whether your issue is a need or a want, then it would be wise to consult with an attorney and see what, if any, options you may have.