Know Your Rights at Work
Episode 213 - Navigating Workplace Rights, a Conversation with Employment Law Expert Jessica Childress
In this enlightening episode, we're joined by Jessica Childress, a renowned employment law attorney and founder of the Childress Firm PLLC. This discussion is a must-listen for anyone looking to understand and navigate the complexities of workplace rights and legalities.
Expert Insights: Jessica Childress brings her extensive experience in employment law to shed light on critical issues affecting the workplace.
Recognizing Workplace Injustice: Learn to identify the signs of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in your work environment.
Empowering Actions: Discover the steps you can take to protect yourself and effectively address legal issues in the workplace.
Legal Interventions vs. Cultural Shifts: Understand when to seek legal advice and when to focus on advocating for change within your organization.
In This Episode, You Will Learn:
The fundamentals of workplace rights and how they apply to you.
Strategies for documenting and reporting workplace issues.
How to approach sensitive conversations with employers or HR departments.
The importance of understanding your employment agreements.
Ways to stay informed about changes in employment law and their impact on your career.
Why Listen to This Episode:
Navigating the legal aspects of your professional life can be daunting. This episode demystifies employment law, offering clear, actionable advice for dealing with workplace issues. Whether you're facing challenges at work or simply want to be better informed, this podcast provides valuable insights for every corporate professional.
About our guest, Jessica Childress
Ms. Childress is the managing attorney and founder of the Childress Firm PLLC, a boutique employment law firm based in Washington, D.C. Ms. Childress holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government and African American Studies from the University of Virginia and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law. Ms. Childress graduated Phi Beta Kappa and with High Distinction from the University of Virginia in 2007. She is the author of the forthcoming book and e-course, "Peace: Leaving a Toxic Workplace on Your Own Terms." In 2022, Ms. Childress received the Women Owned Law organization's Woman Legal Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Ms. Childress has been named to the 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 Washington, D.C. Super Lawyers Rising Stars lists. Only 2.5% of practicing attorneys in Washington, D.C. are selected to receive this honor. Ms. Childress is a 2022 graduate of the Aspen Institute's Justice and Society program. Ms. Childress serves as a contributor for Arianna Huffington's international media outlet, Thrive Global. She has been featured in numerous publications, including Forbes, Essence, the Huffington Post, Success, and Entrepreneur.
Resources mentioned in this episode
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About the Host, Renata Bernarde
Hello, I’m Renata Bernarde, the Host of The Job Hunting Podcast. I’m also an executive coach, job hunting expert, and career strategist. I teach professionals (corporate, non-profit, and public) the steps and frameworks to help them find great jobs, change, and advance their careers with confidence and less stress.
If you are an ambitious professional who is keen to develop a robust career plan, if you are looking to find your next job or promotion, or if you want to keep a finger on the pulse of the job market so that when you are ready, and an opportunity arises, you can hit the ground running, then this podcast is for you.
In addition to The Job Hunting Podcast, on my website, I have developed a range of courses and services for professionals in career or job transition. And, of course, I also coach private clients
Timestamps to guide your listening
13:58 - What is the difference between discrimination, retaliation, and harassment
19:48 - What are the different types of harassment
24:29 - What you need to know about retaliation
27:07 - What you can do if you decide to take action.
31:51 - How to assess the situation and work with HR
42:56 - Can I afford legal advice?
48:43 - Remote and hybrid work issues
51:20 - Free Resources
Transcript of this episode
I am so proud when I interview guests like Miss Jessica Childress on the job hunting podcast, because I know as I'm recording the show that we are discussing issues that can greatly empower professionals with insights, strategies, and tools to navigate the complex world of work and career advancement. I am your host, Renata Bernardi. And in today's episode, we delve into a critical and often challenging aspect of the professional world, understanding and protecting yourself against workplace discrimination, harassment. In a climate where workplace dynamics are continuously evolving, just consider all the new nuances of discrimination that can potentially happen in a hybrid work environment, for example, which in fact we are addressing in our discussion today. It's more important now than ever before to be aware of your rights in a professional work environment.
To shed light on these vital issues, we're joined by a very special guest, Miss Jessica Childress, an award winning employment law attorney. With a career dedicated to championing workplace rights and an impressive array of experience in employment law, Jessica brings a wealth of knowledge to our conversation.
You will find a bio of Miss Childress, as well as links to her free resources. books and her fam's website in the episode show notes. So please go ahead and have a look at that. Throughout our discussion, we focus on equipping you with the knowledge to identify potential legal issues in your workplace. who should be listening to this episode. Of course, those facing challenging situations should be listening to this episode. Those who are seeking to understand their rights and be a step ahead and prepared.
Managers in charge of other professionals, if you have one person reporting to you, Please listen, and HR professionals. This episode is about empowering you with the guidance to make informed decisions. We are going to explore how to recognize signs of unlawful conduct at work, the steps you should take if you find yourself in such situations, and how to discern when a situation requires legal intervention versus a change in the workplace culture and management.
Remember, this podcast is about providing you with the tools and confidence to advance in your career and stand up for your rights in the workplace. if after listening to this episode, you believe you need additional support.
Please consider seeking the support of a career coach like myself. You can find my details in the episode show notes or seek legal advice like the one Ms. Childress can provide. There are many excellent professionals out there like me and like Jessica that can help you.
Now, without further ado, let's dive into this enlightening conversation with Jessica Childress as we navigate the intricacies of employment law and learn how to protect ourselves and our careers.
Jessica, I think the first place I want to start would be to know what inspired you to pursue a career in law and then most specifically in employment law, is that what you call it? Is it employment law?
Jessica: That's right. Well, Renata, thank you again for having me on your show. It truly is an honor and a pleasure. I have been practicing employment law since I started my career over 10 years ago. I graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in Virginia in the United States, and I have been practicing employment law since I began my career.
And I think employment law in the United States, it really is a civil rights. So I've always wanted to be an employment lawyer. As a kid, I loved advocating for others. I really did believe in the concept of justice. And I've always believed in the concept of justice and fairness and employment law. It is really backed by several civil rights laws.
And the most prominent in the United States is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That is our federal employment law that protects several classes in the United States. And there are state analogs or state equivalents to our federal statute that may protect more categories of people, more categories than what our federal law protects.
But I really did love learning about civil rights as a child. I just had one of my favorite children's book characters, she grew up in slavery and she escaped from slavery with her family and her stories really motivated me to learn more about the civil rights movement in the United States. States. So I've just always very much been passionate about advocating for people who are less fortunate, who maybe may not have a voice, whose voice may be marginalized in the community.
And that's really what inspired me to become a civil rights attorney. And so I started practicing employment law in let's see. Then over 10 years ago, I started practicing in 2011 out of the University of Virginia School of Law, I clerked for a federal judge in Maryland and the federal judiciary, they see lots of cases involving employment rights.
And that's where I really did get a deep dive. I got an understanding of employment laws in the United States. And since that time, I have been practicing, since I finished my clerkship, I have been practicing employment law.
Renata: Is it okay if I ask you to provide us with some examples of cases or experiences from your career so that it can sort of add some color to your, your experience as an attorney, maybe some impact, impactful cases that you've worked on that really shaped your career.
Jessica: So I won't go into any specific cases, but as a general matter, I take on several cases that deal with discrimination, retaliation harassment. Those are the types of cases that I take on. And so just generally my client base is dealing with discrimination, harassment, retaliation or other wrongful conduct at work.
And so my job is to determine. Do the facts of this case, do they create an unlawful violation of law and how if they do, well, number one, my job is to assess the case when someone comes and, you know, calls my office and sets up a consultation with me is to assess the case to determine, you know, what are the facts here?
Do these facts create a legal violation? And then if they do, what is our strategy going forward? And so my cases really do range that have all types of clients, clients in the public sector, clients in the private sector in the United States. And so those are the types of cases that I take on. I also do individual trainings for companies in anti harassment and inclusion.
I do respectful workplace trainings as a part of the services that I offer for my firm. So teaching people how to respect their colleagues at work. Because one of my mantras is that if we respect people, if we really treat them the way that they want to be respected at work, we won't get into the disputes that I often, unfortunately, and in.
because of the lack of respect or the lack of the feeling of respect in the workplace. I also conduct independent internal investigations for companies to determine whether there has been any misconduct at work. So my services do run the gamut, but the types of cases that I take on for individual employees, they are typically harassment, discrimination, and retaliation cases.
Renata: All right, this is so telling. I shared with you before we started recording. That I sometimes have to inform my clients and recommend them to seek support legal advice. Because I feel like people don't really understand it's maybe microaggressions and issues at work have been normalized so much that they do not see when the line is.
crossed and it's time to take action. So I would really like you to share with us what you think are the most common signs that someone's rights may have been violated at work. Okay.
Jessica: Sure. So each individual case requires an individualized assessment. So the minute that someone feels as though they are working in an environment where they're continually disrespected, whether that's on a macro level or a micro level through micro aggressions, whether they're bullied, intimidated, whether they're feeling like they can't speak up because they're being undervalued, they're being diminished or spoken down to in the workplace.
So the minute that starts happening continuously, I think it's important that someone does go to a lawyer to find out, hey, is, are my rights being violated here? Unfortunately, a bad workplace or a workplace that's toxic doesn't necessarily equate to an unlawful, what we call in the United States, a hostile work environment.
That is a legal term of art. That is a judicial interpretation, and it comes from statutory law in the United States. So that's a very specific formulaic assessment that an attorney has to do to determine You know, is there an actual law, legal act occurring that we can take legal action for? But that's not always the case, unfortunately.
Sometimes there are simply bad managers. Sometimes you're simply working in an environment that has become toxic, and it's become intolerable. And so the person has to also not only do. An assessment with a lawyer to determine whether the environment is unlawful, but they have to do their own individualized assessment to determine if their workplace has become intolerable and to determine whether it's time for them to leave personally, and that's something.
Those are factors. There are many factors that we all have in our lives. We have to think about. Are we caregivers? Are we parents? Do we have people relying on us? What would I do if I leave my workplace? Do I have any restrictive covenants in place that would prohibit me from going to another job in the United States?
Restrictive covenants are under intense scrutiny from our federal agencies, and they may be a thing of the past, but right now they are allowed. And so there's several factors that someone has to consider before making the decision to leave that toxic workplace. But I think we all know. When we are working or going to a place that we dread, you know, it's, an unshakable, unflappable feeling.
We just have to endure. And sometimes, we've endured for a really long time. Sometimes other people might tell us, Hey, you're, looking differently. You're acting differently. But I think internally, we do know when we are not that. Go. Feeling our best. We know that when we're not producing on our optimal level.
And so when you see those signs in your own life, I think it's time to do an individualized assessment. You may seek help from a therapist or someone who specializes in mental health to determine, you know, or is your workplace causing you stress? Is it time for you to leave based on these factors that a professional such as a mental health professional is seeing?
So that could help you with your personal individualized assessment as to whether it's time to leave. But a lawyer can really help you look at the facts of your particular situation to determine if there is an unlawful violation that has occurred.
Renata: I love that, Jessica recorded several episodes prior to this interview about helping people make decisions about living. Difficult workplace environments and step by step checklist that they can make. And I think yours that you're, you know, we're going to discuss at the end of this conversation, I want to put a link in the episode show notes so that people can access yours.
You're staking a step further because I'm a career coach. I'm an executive coach. I'm not a legal. Advice provider. So I usually guide my clients that reach out to me, people that reach out to me to say, in addition to having a conversation with me, you should contact legal advice. And I think understanding when it's time or even having that early conversation to.
You know, decide what to do next is really important, even if once that conversation takes place, you realize that there is no legal course of action. But can you now help us define and understand these three words, workplace discrimination, workplace harassment, and workplace retaliation.
Maybe let's define them for everybody.
Jessica: Thank you so much, Renata. I think that's a very, very important definition. These are very important definitions to understand. So, we'll start with discrimination. Discrimination, it's a legal term of art. And we know that we can start at the baseline. It's when we are treated differently. Because of, or when we're treated differently, that's the baseline.
To be unlawful discrimination, it has to be based, you have to be treated differently. based on what's called a protected category. Now, what is a protected category? Well, a protected category that is supplied by the law in the U. S. It's supplied by your federal law and also your state's law. I live in the District of Columbia.
We are not a state, but we are a district, and we protect 23 protected classes in the District of Columbia. And so we are a very employee friendly state in the District of Columbia. The District of Columbia prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender identity. pregnancy status parental status your status let's see your religious status of your disability status.
So there are 23 and I won't rattle them all up now, but there, there's an expansive list of categories that DC prohibits discrimination on the basis of. Now, on the other hand, the federal law in The United States only prohibits discrimination on the basis of a limited subset of the 23 categories that I just mentioned that D.
C. prohibits. So, under the federal law, race, sex religion, pregnancy status, disability, those are all protected. But that's still a very small subset of categories. You're not allowed to discriminate on the basis of genetic information. So still a very small subset of what D.
C. New York, California. These are all very, very employee friendly states. So that's the spectrum. So we have a D. C. New York, California. Very protective. They protect many categories of people. On the other hand, there are other states that only protect what the federal law requires them to protect and nothing more.
So we go into discrimination back to your question. What is discrimination? Well, discrimination can be, you know, I'm not going to give you Renata a promotion because you're wearing a blue shirt. And that, unfortunately, in D. C., personal appearance discrimination is protected. If we were to go to another state that does not protect personal appearance discrimination, that would actually be a perfectly legal statement.
But in D. C., that would not be a legal statement. Because I'm discriminating against you based on your personal appearance. So it's very dependent discrimination. Unlawful discrimination is going to be dependent upon where you live. Unfortunately, I don't think that should be the case, but that is the case in the United States.
And that is just what discrimination is. Unlawful.
Renata: can I give two examples from my own career, which I think will be telling to, showcase the difference between states like Washington and, the federal difference. I once was told I didn't get. the job because I was too softly spoken. And I have that in writing to this day. And I think maybe that would be considered discrimination in Washington, but maybe not in another state.
Jessica: Well, I think that there is maybe some pretext behind that statement because if there can be disparate impact discrimination. So if being softly spoken is equated to being a woman and all women are given are told
Renata: I know the email goes on to say I wouldn't be able to handle the The hardcore sort of industry that this organization belonged to, because I was too softly spoken. So there was an implication there that the softly spoken correlated with something to do with my personality.
Jessica: So that, you know, in and of itself, that statement may pass muster because it's not explicitly gender based, but I think that there, that there are certainly microaggressions packed into that statement. And I think that there's a, there could be an argument that that statement is based on your gender, if only the women.
For example, we're being given that statement and then only the women were denied a promotion based on that particular comment and feedback. So, if that's a comment that's based on sex in the United States, that actually would be protected in every state, in all 50 states. And the District of Columbia in our territories, that actually would be a protected if that statement, if you can prove that that statement was based on your sex you being a woman, then that statement would potentially be discriminatory but because it's more implicit and less explicit, which is the case in many discrimination claims, it is a harder case.
argument to make, but it's because discrimination often is not overt. Often it is very, there are innuendos and many, many microaggressions which are not protected in the United States and they're not protected in any state. Microaggressions is not even a word that you'll hear in our case law. And that's unfortunate because so many microaggressions happen in the workplace, but I wanted to answer your question.
This actually leads me nicely into the discussion about harassment. What does harassment mean? And we still have these state specific nuances in the United States as to what harassment means and the federal law, harassment means that you are being treated in a way that is severe or pervasively changing the terms and conditions of your workplace.
So it has to be severe and pervasive conduct that changes the terms and conditions of your workplace. So it has, it's a very high standard in the District of Columbia. The District of Columbia has removed the severe and pervasive standard for proving harassment, and there are several factors that D. C.
will consider and one incident of harassment or what they consider to be harassment. So one incident of conduct. That's protected. That's based on someone's protected class can actually constitute harassment if it is severe enough, and that's a very ambiguous standard, but it doesn't have to be pervasive.
It doesn't have to totally infiltrate your workplace and your work environment like the conduct does under the federal law. And so those are still with harassment. It has to be based on your protected class. And so, again, D. C. protects, if we're looking at D. C. as the baseline of the most, or as the example of the most protective state, D.
C. protects 23 protected categories. If you are not in one of the most protective states, harassment has to be based on the federal law or whatever class is your state protects. And that harassment, the conduct has to be based on one of those protected classes in order to be considered. Unlawful harassment.
Renata: Jessica, can I ask you a question about that? Because with workplace discrimination, even though I never took any action, I have at least, you know, the documentation there. because I knew I wanted to be a career coach in the future, so I wanted to always remember, you know, the things that have happened in my career where I felt discriminated against, and there were quite a few of those.
But with harassment, I find that I have my own personal notes, but I... I don't know how I could prove it.
It doesn't have to be sexual harassment. So I know that those are many, many definitions, but just giving you all the terms so that your audience can really understand some of these distinctions and the stratifications in. what we consider to be harassment under the layman's terms versus under the legal terms.
So it's important that you do keep a record. So number one, if you consult with an attorney, they can see the facts. They are able to assess the facts and, and assess them in a way that's comprehensive. So if you do have documentation, it is, you know, it's important that you are able to provide that to an attorney so that they can understand.
Is there a violation here? If you have notes, journal entries, it's important to record those at the time of the incident because your memory is the most fresh when the incident occurs, not when you're trying to remember something, you know, three weeks, three months, three years later. There are also statutes of limitations, meaning that you have, if you are going to take legal action, you have to file a claim by a certain time, or else your claim is time, what's called time barred.
You're not allowed to file the claim anymore. And those statutes of limitations for discrimination and harassment claims, as well as retaliation claims are very strict in the United States. So even if you come to a lawyer and that you have great facts, you've something terrible happened to you, which was like.
very explicit, overt violation of law. If your claim is time barred, unfortunately, your lawyer's hands are tied and there's really nothing else that they can do on your case. So that that's important to remember that you, you know, you know, the dates as to when things occurred, there's something called a continuing violation under the law, which if you're continuing to if you're in a hospital work environment, and the violation is continuing, it just hasn't stopped, it started a year ago, it's happened every single day for the last year, that can potentially extend the statute of limitations.
So the last day that the act occurred, that's when the statute of limitations start.
Renata: I got it. What about retaliation?
Jessica: And with retaliation, again, very formulaic. Pretty, actually much easier to prove than discrimination because discrimination again happens with many, many innuendos, maybe with microaggressions, but once you have filed a complaint internally. With your company or externally with an agency in the United States.
It can be your federal agency, which is called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a state agency. There's something called a Fair Employment Practices Agency. They have what's called a Work Share Agreement. So you cross file. If you filed with one, you filed with the other. And so once you filed with either of those, you or.
Made an internal complaint to your supervisor, to the human resources director, or to whomever in human resources, once you have followed your internal complaint policy at your company, or made an outside complaint, you have then engaged in what's called protected activity. And protected activity, it is a prerequisite to a retaliation claim.
So you have to first speak up, you have to. And that protected activity, it can be a written complaint, it can be an oral complaint. It doesn't necessarily have to be a picture perfect, you know, complaint that you see on the news on 60 Minutes when you see, I know you're in Australia on 60 Minutes, that's our news.
Renata: No, we have
Jessica: it here,
Oh, wonderful. Wonderful. One of my favorite news shows, but it doesn't have to look like that. It simply has to raise the facts. It has to be a complaint where you are opposing or raising awareness about something that you have a violation that you have undergone in your workplace. So that's protected activity.
That means it's protected. It's legally protected. No one in your workplace can take an adverse action. That's another key word under the law. No one can take an adverse action against you for engaging in that protected activity. So, an adverse action, the most explicit type of adverse action is termination.
That's the most adverse you can get. Other types of adverse actions would be demotion changing your position being, changing your role at the company. Those are all examples of adverse actions, but you have to both have the protected activity and the adverse action in order for something to be retaliatory or to be considered retaliatory under the law.
Renata: Okay, Jessica, what are the best ways? Now if people are listening to this and they feel like, oh wow, I had no idea, maybe I should do something. And. about it. It's affecting me. What are the best ways for employees to approach their employees about their concerns? It's very hard when I'm talking to clients, people that book consultations with me, when I raise that with them, have you thought about taking action escalating?
They usually say, no, no, no, it's not that bad. So they sort of try to consider this. The reason why I feel so bad for them is because they internalize their emotions and internalize the situation and think it's their responsibility to move out and potentially be without income. And they are concerned, of course, about Retaliation and not knowing what the next best step is internally to do this in a way where they feel safe.
But by, you know, deciding to quit, which is what a lot of people do, they put themselves into different stressors, you know, stress of not having a job, stress of not having income. So what do you suggest is the best approach for them? Hmm.
Jessica: It's easier said than done to speak up on behalf of yourself. It's much easier for me as an advocate for me to speak up on behalf of someone than for that person to do it themselves. And I know because I have been at workplaces where it was hard for me to speak up on behalf of myself, even being a trained advocate.
And so understand deeply how hard it is, but it is important if there's something that is happening to you at work that you feel is unlawful, especially, but even culturally, if there's something that's not necessarily unlawful. That you believe would make your workplace healthier. That would make you psychologically safer at work.
It is important that you say something because there may be just innocuous people believe that their conduct is innocuous, and it's not harmful that it's not hurting anyone. There could be. off colored jokes that are made at work that maybe the person just doesn't know that they're triggering to the people around them.
Those jokes may not actually be unlawful in and of themselves, but they may be making someone else uncomfortable. And that's just a slight example, but it's important that the person who is enduring a workplace where they feel that they can't endure it anymore. Before they walk out of the workplace, they should do the assessment to determine, you know, is it worth me just walking out?
Is it worth my mental health and my peace to stay here? Or can I endure? And what do I need to do to endure, but it's always important to tell the person who is creating that environment. That's not comfortable. You know, why that what's happening because they might not know and maybe.
They do know that it's not comfortable, but that person may be actually a valued employee. And maybe if they didn't know, they would change their behavior. So we never know, right? Like what the other person, what the employer is thinking, what managers are thinking about their behavior, what they know and what they don't know until someone does speak up.
So it's, I think being very clear. So sometimes I think employees may want to be a bit equivocal to, save relationships or not to appear as though maybe they're complaining unnecessarily, but I think it's important to be clear and professional about what you're enduring, about what you've experienced, you know, be truthful, of course, about everything that you've experienced, because I think that that will make people aware It could make if it's not, if it's their, you know, first line director or supervisor, that matters escalated.
Maybe someone who has influence can actually go back to that director manager and say, Hey, this is what's going on. We don't think that this is okay. These jokes or these comments or this behavior, this type of management. It's really not it's not congruent with our culture here. And we'd like you to, check on it and And that's something that I think it's important that someone raised the issue because of course there's bystander effect and maybe other people are going through this.
So it, and I think that if you personally are undergoing a bad workplace or a workplace that you cannot stand anymore before you leave, I think you owe it to yourself to say something if you feel empowered enough to do so.
Renata: I agree. I think what usually happens as well is if you allow it to continue, it can escalate and blow up. So sometimes it's better because you're less stressed and your cognitive abilities as well. You're better. able to make rational decisions and good decisions for yourself when you, do this early in the piece and don't allow it to escalate to a point where you've lost control of your emotions and allow things to blow up at work.
So I often do Suggest people to seek legal advice if they can afford or give them some step by steps on what to do internally. I'll give you an example yesterday. A client of mine who worked with me a few months ago got a job. We had a consultation and she was very unhappy with her.
Immediate manager and was already thinking about moving out. So that's why she wanted to have a conversation with me and through that conversation, we sort of brainstormed what was going on and realized that it was just bad management. The person wasn't a sociopath or discriminatory per se. Uh, She probably had too much on her hands, too many direct reports and the onboarding for new team member, my client hadn't been done properly.
So she was being criticized over and over again, basically because she was new and didn't have any ways of getting information and the manager had no patience to deal with it. So we went through like a a feedback model that she could use and she could write down things before the meeting so that she didn't allow the emotions to take hold of her.
And we sort of went through like what I call the, it's not I call, I think it's very well known, the BIS model. So it's behavior, impact and solution. And. I'm hoping that that keeps her in the job, you know, and, then because it was the only one consultation I said, look, give that a couple of months, use that feedback model on your weekly meetings with your manager.
If that doesn't work, then go to HR, you like this organization, she said yes, go to HR, see if, you know, there are other opportunities for you in other teams and, you know, could she sort of rotate you? Did I do a good job with that? Do you think I'm judging?
Jessica: mean, I think going to, I think exploring the possibilities, it's not always a open and shut solution. So the solution is not always leave, right? And that's why I'm really looking forward to publicizing my book, Peace, Leaving a Toxic Workplace on Your Own Terms, because often
Renata: Awesome title, great title.
Jessica: Thank you so much.
Thank you. But often people think that they have to just leave and that's not necessarily the case. There may be other opportunities. And I think one that you mentioned and highlighted with your potential client was that there may be an option to go somewhere else within the company. If you like the company, if it's a, you know, nice culture, otherwise, other than this manager, this bad manager.
You know, there may be other opportunities. There may be ways to restructure the work so that it does become tolerable and so thinking and being creative and of course, letting HR know, let them be a solution partner for you and with you. So it's not just an employee versus HR. Situation because people often think of HR as, you know, the enemy, but that doesn't have to be the case, you know, I think that in many HR departments do want their employees to succeed and they want to create a healthy work environment.
And that is, you know, I think that many HR departments have the tools to do so. So really being like, making sure that you raise your issue. Let them know that you don't want to leave. You know, I think that that's important that if you really want to stay, it's important to let HR know that you want to be a member of the team but there are some things that are happening.
That they need to know about to make sure they're protecting everyone.
Renata: Yeah, and look, the reason why I described that as an example, and there are so many different ways things can happen, and I understand that, but I wanted to illustrate what it could look like for somebody to take action early on, and it's not as dramatic as some people think, and it's not as hard either, like it can be done, it's not, it's. Rather simple, but what usually I see happening is people waiting too long and just coping, coping, coping until they can't cope anymore. So I'm glad that she booked this hour with me and we had that conversation now and not next year when she would have been completely stressed out with her manager and maybe there wasn't a solution for it.
But let's say things have gone out of hand. So at what point should. An individual considers seeking legal advice or representation and what does that look like? So,
Jessica: Sure. So as soon as their work environment, if they believe it has become intolerable or is becoming, you know, very, if you sense that it's becoming intolerable, I no longer can deal with this environment. This is becoming beyond what's normal. And so what's normal? I think that is a. That's a range. It's a very ambiguous assessment as to what's normal.
But I think you have a gut feeling as to what's normal. But bullying is not normal. You know, being intimidated is not normal. Being left off of communications intentionally is not normal. Those are some common ways and reasons why people feel like they're being treated differently. So you'll know what's normal in your workplace.
Place based on what you see based on conversations that you have with other people. So you can assess what's normal in your work environment, but if you sense that you are being treated differently or that your work environment is becoming one that's. becoming hostile based on the definitions that I just mentioned.
If you're in the United States, then, and also knowing what's protected and seeing, you know, if you are one of the protected categories in your state, so knowing, you know, what the protected categories are, what's protected and you feel like comments are, are being made about your protected category or actions are being delivered and actions are being made.
In relation to your protected category, that is a time to contact a lawyer so that they can do a professional assessment as to whether you are actually being discriminated or harassed or retaliated against. If you have engaged in protected activity and what that process looks like. It looks like every lawyer has a very different process for intake.
So, but there is typically an intake for my firm. You would undergo an intake. You would provide your information. There would be a con, a conflict check to determine and make sure that there are no conflicts of interest. And then once that determination has been made, a call would be booked with me.
And you would have an hour maybe an hour and a half, depending on all of the facts in the case, for me to listen to the story, for me to understand based on, you know, what you've told me, based on whether there are any documents to prove what you've told me whether you have a particular legal claim.
And if there's anything that the lawyer can actually for me, if there's anything I can actually do, because it's important that lawyers and clients have a goal or that client has a goal that's realistic. So if the client says, you know, I want to take this case to the Supreme Court. Well, this is actually not, you know, maybe a particular case that's worthy of going to the Supreme Court because some cases might be bad management.
Some cases, there may be discrimination or harassment, but, you know, the Supreme Court may not be the body that's going to be equipped. The Supreme Court is obviously the highest court in our land. or in our country. And so the Supreme Court You know, there are very limited cases that the Supreme Court can hear.
There may be cases that you may not believe will actually get to court, but there may be room for negotiation. And so there may be a small violation of law, but not the most egregious, but there may be room for negotiation. to get that particular client some level of justice. But what a client considers to be justice is always important that what the client is wanting is something that the lawyer can actually deliver or try to deliver on.
If the client's expectations are unreasonable or just outside of the scope of what the lawyer can actually provide, then it's important to have that conversation at the outset. And the lawyer to just say, okay, this is what, you know, I can do, or this is what I can try to do. Or, you know, this might not be the best case for me, but here's a referral.
So that's a, the initial consultation is very important because it's important for the lawyer and the client to determine if they want to work with each other. If you, your lawyer, if you don't feel comfortable with your lawyer, you really shouldn't. work with that lawyer because this is a relationship business.
It's a, you know, you are not just someone who is, you know, you're, you're providing a service based on the most important details of someone's life. You know, you are listening. To details about just intimate details about a person's life, how this workplace has affected their family relationships, their relationships with their partners, how it's affected their mental health.
So you have to feel very comfortable sharing those details with your lawyer and you should. Hopefully have time during that consultation to understand the lawyer's personality. Now, you're not going to necessarily be best friends with your lawyer. That's not the lawyer's role. The lawyer's role is to be a professional.
The lawyer is not a therapist, even though you are. likely going to be sharing details about how the workplace has affected you mentally. The lawyer is not someone who can give you advice about, you know, what to do to help your well being. So sometimes lawyers can seem a little cold because they are doing a very formulaic assessment.
But even so, for me, it's very important to deliver services with empathy, even though I am doing the It's very formulaic assessment to determine the facts that you have versus the law. And sometimes they don't always line up. And for me as a professional, as a professional who is working with people in really, really hard situations often, even if I don't see a legal violation based on the facts they've provided me, it's important for me to deliver that news with empathy.
Because just because there is, there's might not be a legal violation that has occurred. That doesn't mean that something bad hasn't happened.
Renata: Jessica, is it a privilege to have access to someone like you? I mean, I'm trying to think about people that may have been listening to this but feel like they can't afford. and I want to pause here and also say this, that some people really can't afford and, you know, at the time we're discussing this, there's some real sort of socioeconomic issues in, the United States and in Australia, cost of living is high.
But when I teach, I teach at Monash University and I do this every year. I do career planning and design for master's students at the university. And I tell them you have to invest in your career, you'll be working 30, 40 years, you have a long, long career, chances are sometimes times won't be, they won't be good, you know, there will be ups and downs and you need to be prepared financially to invest in yourself, to do professional development or access legal advice or have a career coach.
So that is part of the budgeting that you need to do. Right. But, yeah. Maybe people haven't done that. Now they need to access legal advice. Can they afford it?
Jessica: tHat's such a great question, Renata. And I think when we think what I was in college and in law school, I never thought about, I always thought about investing in my career. I paid, you know, thousands of dollars to go to law school and, you know, have paid thousands of dollars for professional development in other arenas, but I never thought about.
Investing in yourself with an employment lawyer just in case things don't go well. So I think, you know, when you have executives and they're negotiating contracts, they, you know, people don't think twice about, you know, paying for a lawyer to review their contracts on a, for a preventative, for preventative reasons to make sure that they're being protected in their contract.
Renata: would be surprised. I'm often telling people they should.
Jessica: You don't sign
Renata: this contract without checking it out first. But anyway, go ahead.
to want to spend money when it's when people are feeling like this is like a hopeful situation. You know, I, this is I'm getting a new job. It want to be protected. But when you are, you know, up against the wall, you're dealing with something that you did not ask for.
You know, you did not know that this work environment would become this way. It's unfortunate that, you know, it's not something that you want to necessarily pay for because it's not something that you, you know, I didn't ask for a bad manager, right? And so Can people, is it a privilege? I think we clearly deal with socioeconomic stratification everywhere.
Lawyers are not cheap. Unfortunately, I think if you, lawyers do have many, many, I think I, I think we with fees. I know that that's not something that people want to pay. They don't want to pay lawyer fees. I understand that we are expensive. And unfortunately, there are very few organizations that represent people from the public on a pro bono level and employment law disputes.
That's just this is an access to justice issue. And unfortunately, And unfortunately, No, lawyers don't. I have a very small practice. And so the amount of pro bono hours that can even be provided are very, very limited. And so it's, and unfortunately, legal aid organizations, not all of them take employees from the public on a pro bono basis.
And so. It is a privilege to answer your question. It is a privilege, and I don't think it should be that way, but it is a privilege to have a lawyer for any case. And I feel very strongly about the fact that it should not be a privilege. I think that it should be, you know, there are fee shifting statutes in the United States that do allow for Prove what's called a prevailing plaintiff to get their attorney's fees back to incentivize lawyers to take on civil rights cases and fee shifting statutes.
They are prevalent in civil rights statutes of shifting language is prevalent. So civil rights statutes to incentivize lawyers to take on these cases. Nonetheless, it's still very expensive. You know, it's still expensive. The justice system. It is just. Unfortunately, very, very expensive and justice should be free.
So I hope that with my work with training organizations to be more respectful, to be civil, to understand what constitutes a violation of law, that it's my hope that organizations will change, that organizations that are already great will get even better that they will really be great places to work because all people really deserve to work in a place where they feel safe.
Renata: Yeah. I think what you're doing is also pro bono at scale, because if you are publishing books and you're speaking at podcasts and, you know, delivering your message at scale, it just informs more people about their rights and what They should be getting help for and what they can do by themselves.
This is fantastic. So, thank you for being here on this podcast. You're speaking to the right audience here. Believe me.
Jessica: Well, thank you for having Me, and thank you for what you're doing to educate, because I think without education, we don't know what our rights are, we don't know if our rights are being violated, and we should always have access to this information, and there are so many things that we know because there are public, there's so much public education about it, but employment law, unfortunately, just isn't one of them.
Renata: Yes, I love that. Before we, finish, I want just to touch on, on remote work and hybrid work. And how is it different for you now as an attorney to deal with cases of people that are not Now, Physically working together to remote has it affected the cases and the work that you do?
Jessica: So I don't think so. I do think I am training more on how to make sure that we are. including people who are not actually in the workplace. How are we making sure that they're given the same opportunities? But I have not seen a trend in hybrid work issues yet.
Renata: Okay. Now it's only because my clients often come to me saying, Oh, we're fighting by email or I found out that I haven't been invited to all these meetings, you know, so it's kind of a really weird way of discrimination, not being invited to, email, Zoom conferences or online meetings.
And I think at least with the email fights, which are happening is interesting because you have that in writing. So it's probably easier to prove, but to be excluded from. Emails and excluded from decision making meetings is something that many clients of mine complain about. Um. Um.
Jessica: Given an opportunity because they were working remotely. So I think there could be biases. towards people who are not in the actual office. And so this is certainly developing trend.
I haven't seen it in my practice, but I do think it's a hot topic in the employment law sector about how do we make sure. That people who are working at home for whatever reason, they could be caregivers, right? They very much, you know, it just might be more efficient for them to work at home. So, how are we making sure that they're actually included and not to your point, not left off of emails and that they are invited to these opportunities outs are in the office and outside of the office that are going to lead to career development.
And professional development. So this is certainly, I think, not this topic is not going away. And I think we are going to see more cases in the case law coming out about hybrid work. But right now, I do think that it's, it's something that I'm certainly educating employers on to make sure they're aware of these biases that could form.
Renata: Awesome. All right, Jessica, tell us about resources that people can find online, things that you provide, maybe other organizations that can help my listeners.
Jessica: sure. So if you are, if you're in the United States, if you are dealing with a workplace situation, the National Employment Lawyers Association has a directory of attorneys that you can consult with, or that you may be able to consult with, but there's a directory for each company Of employment law attorneys who represent plaintiffs.
I'm a member of the M of M wheeler, which is the Metropolitan Employment Lawyers Association. And there is if you're in the D. C. metropolitan area. So that's D. C. Maryland and Virginia. There's also a directory on the M wheeler site of attorneys who represent employees and employment law. So really understanding where lawyers are in the first place.
Sometimes it's just hard to find an attorney because you don't even know where to start. So finding an attorney, setting up the consultation. If you really do want to understand if anything's happened in your workplace that you believe to be unlawful. There's also information on if you're in the United States.
States, the United States Department of Labor's website, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's website that really outlines what those protected classes are. And the Equal Employment Opportunity website should also have a link to your state Fair Employment Practices Agency if you have one in your local jurisdiction.
So you can look at their website to determine what. Protected classes does your local jurisdiction protect. So those are just public websites. My as I mentioned, Renata, I am releasing my book in E course piece, leaving a toxic workplace on your own terms that will be released in January. And that will provide resources very similar to the ones that we've discussed today.
How to recognize a toxic workplace. If you are leaving a toxic workplace, what is a severance agreement? And what should you request in a severance agreement? How do you actually File a complaint of discrimination internally and externally. So that course and E course will come out and be an educational resource for you in January.
In the meantime, there is a checklist that will be in the show notes and that. Checklist provides key items to consider before leaving a toxic workplace.
Renata: Oh, awesome. I'm going to add that to my client's resources. Jessica, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really, really enjoyed this conversation. It's going to be so useful to so many people. I'm already. seeing the emails coming through saying wonderful things about this episode in particular.
Jessica: Thank you so very much, Renata. I just, I really do appreciate the opportunity to come speak to you and your audience today. So thank you.
Renata: Oh, look, whenever you have a new topic to talk to us, please reach out. We would love to have you
Jessica: Oh, thank you so much. I would love to come back.
Renata: All right. Bye for now.