“Is It Illegal?” You’re Asking The Wrong Question

We get all kinds of queries and questions from employees about their workplace frustrations. Many times, people will describe a certain situation and ask “Is this legal?” Sometimes the issues do in fact describe illegal activity. Other times it’s just annoying, or morally wrong, but not necessarily illegal.  But…. does it matter?  Well…. yes and no.

Let’s imagine there’s a dictionary where you can look up every law in some kind of easy order. You go to the entry on the problem at issue and you read, “Yes! This is illegal!” OK, so now you know that a rule either was or was not broken.

How does that knowledge help you?

The question people should be asking is something more along the lines of this:

  • Is this an action that I think is wrongfully harming me or my coworkers?
  • If I feel like I am being wronged, am I for some reason or another “entitled” to something better?
  • If I am entitled to something better, how do I go about that?
  • Will going after this actually improve my life, or will it somehow make it worse?
  • Even if I’m not “entitled” to something better, can I negotiate something better or change things to make it better?
  • Is the best way to get a good outcome in the judicial system, or is it in some other way?

The reason it matters that you ask the right questions is that it’s important to identify what the “real” issue is. You should spend your time on the issues that actually affect you,so that you can fix those issues. Otherwise, something else might get fixed but not make you feel better at all because to you, it’s fixing the wrong thing.

For example, let’s say you feel that your boss is being mean to you on a day-in, day-out basis. Further, let’s say that in this circumstance it’s not actually related to any of the categories that the law specifically protects against (like it’s not on the basis of your race or gender, etc.) In this case, the boss is just a jerk. Through and through. A low down, no-good son-of-a-gun. (You get the picture.)

Because just being mean is generally not illegal – even for bosses – chances are very good you would not be able to sue about it. Or even if for some reason you could – say, because you found a lawyer who could put together evidence that actually it was based on some discriminatory motive, who won at trial – at the end of the day what you’d get out of it wouldn’t be your boss being nicer. You (might) get money. I mean, who doesn’t like getting some money…. But if you think about it, does that really “fix” the actual problem?

What you actually want in that circumstance is a nice boss, right? Let’s look at the questions again:

  • Is this an action that I think is wrongfully harming me or my coworkers? YES!
  • If I feel like I am being wronged, am I for some reason or another “entitled” to something better? PROBABLY NOT
  • Even if I’m not “entitled” to something better, can I negotiate something better or change things to make it better? MAYBE
  • Is the best way to get a good outcome in the judicial system, or is it in some other way? PROBABLY SOME OTHER WAY

In this case, maybe the solution is to keep a diary of the bad behavior; log your co-workers’ reactions, productivity rates, and absenteeism; and take this information to HR. Maybe your boss gets replaced with someone nicer. Or maybe you look around for other jobs, in different environments, and get a nicer boss that way. Or maybe you bring your grumpy boss anonymous gifts every day and suddenly catch him smiling. The possible solutions are limitless and need to be tailored to your specific situation.

If you can go through this process and come up with the right questions on your own, to get you to the right solutions, great! However, if you get stuck coming up with possible solutions, and/or navigating how to negotiate them, we are here for you. Because we have seen these kinds of issues come up so often – where there’s a problem to be solved, but one that isn’t necessarily a match for a formal legal claim – we have created an affordable, flat fee, streamlined package to help you out. Give us a call or email and we can provide you the details.

Written by Penn Dodson