3 Tips to Help You with an Employment Law Question

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Lately, I’ve been running into a lot of people who take legal advice from their opponents. I see it in relationships. (“My soon-to-be-ex-husband says he gets the house and all the money and he only has to give me $100 a month in child support, even though we have six children and he earns $250,000 a year!”)

I see it in neighbor disputes. (“My neighbor tore down the fence on our property line and replaced it with one festooned with diamonds and rubies and now says I have to pay half!”) And I see it at work. (“My boss says I have to work overtime without pay because it’s a pandemic!”)

Yes, I just called your boss, your opponent.

I’ll put your HR department in the same category. This is not to antagonize anyone or say that they are out to get you. In theory, we should all be on the same side; employees, managers, and Human Resources all want the business to succeed. But, sometimes, not everyone is as honest as they could be. And if you feel like someone is lying to you, or something seems tremendously unfair, you may not wish to take advice from your boss or HR department.

Now, If I were your HR manager, I would always tell you the truth. But, it’s clear that not all HR managers are doing that.

In the United States, it’s illegal to prevent employees from discussing workplace conditions – including who has Covid-19. Yet, big named companies tried to stop their employees from talking about it.

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A Canadian court handed down a decision in a class-action lawsuit, saying that Canada’s largest bank owed unpaid overtime to 31,000 employees. In Europe, Air France employees are claiming that the company ignores and allows sexual harassment.

So, we’ve established that not every HR department nor every manager follows the law. Dishonest or incompetent HR departments are counting on you not knowing the law. Let’s fix that.

Clearly, it’s impossible to list out all employment laws in all countries in one article. If we did, it would be so long no one would read it, and it would be out of date as soon as it was written. But, there are some tricks to finding out the law in your country that can help you protect your rights. Here we go:

Legal advice

1. Hire a lawyer

While this is good advice, it’s not always practical. In Switzerland, where I sit, an employment attorney will run you about 300 Swiss Francs per hour (that’s about 277 Euros or $327 US Dollars.) I don’t have that kind of money for every question. But, in many places, you can buy legal insurance that will allow you to run questions by an attorney for free or at a reduced rate. 

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With this insurance, you can call up the attorney and ask your question and get a straight answer. You may think this isn’t necessary insurance to have, but if your boss is cheating you out of unpaid overtime, the cost savings can add up quickly.

2. Know how to Google

Googling employment laws isn’t the easiest thing to do. There are lots of tricky little things that can get in your way. If you just google “break laws” you may or may not get information for your local jurisdiction. Instead, do this:

  • Find out if employment law is at the country or local level. In the United States, many employment laws are up to the individual states, so California’s law is not the same as Texas’s law. 
  • Include your location when you google. “Break laws London” will get you more accurate information than “Break laws UK” will. 
  • If possible, google in the country’s official language. There are often plenty of English speaking websites for everything in this global economy. Still, if you’re an expat sitting in Lithuania, you’re already at a disadvantage in not knowing the laws, don’t make it worse by Googling in English (or your native language). Do you best, or better yet, ask a native speaking friend to help you.
  • Check the website. Government websites are unlikely to end in .com. Are you looking at an actual law or an activist group website? 
  • Use the news to help you. Understanding the legal mumbo-jumbo of legislation can be difficult if you’re searching in your native language. It is nearly impossible if you’re trying to attack this in a second or third language. But, news sites are often written in very readable (and very Google-translate-able) language. If you google “sexual harassment lawsuit Paris” and click on the “news” option, you should get some easy to understand information. Please note, this is not definitive like a government website would be, but it will point you in the right direction.

None of this beats a lawyer, but it’s free and can help you head toward the right information. At a minimum, if you find anything, you can bring it to your HR department and say, “this says that employees are allowed to talk about their salaries, but your policy is that we’re forbidden to talk about it. Can you clarify?”

3. You can always look for a new job

It would be ideal if we could find a job when we finish school and work happily there for the next 40 years. But if you are unhappy, you are free to move on. Depending on your work contract, you may have to give a long notice period (or no notice period at all), but you’re always free to find a new job (except in rare circumstances, like the military). You don’t have to tolerate bad behavior forever.

Don’t let dishonest people drain your happiness from you. Don’t let them tell you that you’ll never find a better job, either. It may take some time, but you can always move on. Don’t take career advice from people who abuse your goodwill.

On a final note

Most managers are good people. Most HR people are trying their best. But, if you find yourself in a bad situation, check out the truth for yourself. A bit of knowledge is a powerful thing. Don’t let anyone stop you from gaining that power.

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