Monday, February 02, 2009

Dealing with Employer Traps

Just as a reminder, this blog has always been directed at Black workers who are FALSELY targeted at work and who are dealing with legitimate race-based issues. As I wrote early on, if you aren't doing your job than get your stuff together! Don't use race as a false issue to cover up your deficiencies because it sets us all back and makes legitimate discussions about race-based issues at work seem like so-called race-baiting/playing the race card. It's bad enough that legitimate claims of workplace racism will often be met with false allegations of race-baiting (possibly along with harassment and retaliation), so we don't need anyone making things more difficult for those of us who are truly fighting the good fight at work. One of the most important things we can do is to really look at our situation and try to objectively decide if it's race-related or if it's just business (a legitimate issue). With that said, here's the post on dealing with employer traps:


Unfortunately, instead of providing a remedy to correct race-based misconduct (by firing or demoting the offender) some employers will escalate attacks against the victim of the harassment. If you’re being subjected to harassing behavior and a hostile work environment at work, beware of the traps that are often laid by supervisors and/or employers.

When a supervisor or a company decides to go into protection mode, they will sometimes try to create a rock-solid case against the complaining employee. The stronger the case against the employee—even a fraudulent case—the more secure the supervisor or employer will feel about deflecting any allegations that an employee or group of employees has engaged in illegal misconduct.

It’s a bait and switch. The employee goes from complaining about mistreatment to being lured into a position of defending themselves against baseless attacks, which often have nothing to do with the instigating incident. For instance, a Black employee may complain about a White manager using racial epithets and end up in a meeting defending allegations that they (the Black employee) has been habitually tardy to work—an accusation that was never made before they complained. Having been subjected to supervisor and employer traps, I can provide some tips:

1. Keep track of all the false allegations being made against you and guard against the attack by keeping all documentation that proves the allegations are false. For instance, to justify a malicious performance evaluation rating given to me (the lowest offered at our company) my former employer accused me of being unavailable to work on specific projects and they named those projects. They said that the task leaders never knew when I could work or what I was doing.

Unfortunately, for my employer, I had emails from the tasks leaders of those projects stating that our work was put on hold by government contracting officers or that the projects were canceled. The emails even stated that no one on the team should bill any hours to those projects because they were inactive. Therefore, how could I be unavailable for work that was nonexistent? An outside investigating agency now has the claim from my employer that I was not pulling my weight on these projects. But, this agency also has my written evidence that there was no work to be done because work had been suspended or permanently stopped.

Luckily, I saved those emails because those types of emails are important to keep and because my employer was already hinting that they were going to attack my time and work effort on a number of projects. My supervisor was suddenly fond of saying that EVERYONE was “watching my hours” and every “wonders what you do.” She telegraphed the company’s blows (attempted knock-out punches) and I was keeping all documentation related to where I knew the punches would come from.

2. Keep track of false allegations and show how your supervisor or employer is engaging in behavior that would lead you toward engaging in the negative behavior. For instance, a supervisor or employer will sometimes bog a targeted employee down with a lot of extra work. This is done to make it hard for the person to meet deadlines, to encourage mistakes, and to stress out the employee. If you find yourself in this type of trap, you should document all of your assignments prior to the point where you were a target and show how your assignments significantly increased after you became a victim of abuse. You could show how the workload wasn’t spread throughout your department—just to you.

Another example of this would be a supervisor or employer falsely criticizing an employee for not asking important questions, but leaving out the part about how they wouldn’t respond to the employee’s emails or voicemails and refused to have face-to-face meeting to discuss the assignment. In this example, the employee could show documentation of attempts at getting answers to questions that were rebuffed.

The point want to show that your employer is not documenting performance problems; your employer is creating and manufacturing performance problems.

3. For a moment, pretend any false allegations are true. So, look at the personnel manual and see how your employer should be handling their false complaints and management of you on the issues. You want to play the devil’s advocate to see if you can trap your employer with their own written policies and procedures. This is a tactic that can help your case. For instance, your employer may lay a trap for you with the end goal of demoting you. But, your employer may move more quickly than is justified by their own policy. The policy might say that you should only receive an oral warning for a first violation—real or not. You can use this to back your employer into a corner by asking why they are jumping the gun and violating their own policy. And, you could question why they are alleging your behavior is so egregious it warrants ignoring their own written policy.

All of the answers to these questions will go towards building your case against your employer. It can also force your employer to back off or commit to more lies—if that is the direction they wish to take things. But, if they do, they are already in a bad position, if they’ve ignored their own policies and procedures. If so, they are showing evidence of harassing or retaliatory behavior (if you’ve already made complaints).

4. Make the employer prove the allegations/traps. If they want to lie about you, make them fully own the lies. Instead of falling into the trap, ask for historical documentation of your alleged performance deficiencies and bog your employer down with questions that they can only answer by removing their complaint about you or by lying and getting themselves into more legal hot water. For instance, if your employer lays traps about false performance deficiencies, you can ask:

a. When did you first notice this problem?
b. Why didn’t anyone bring the alleged problem to my attention before now?
c. Can I see your evidence of this problem?
(e.g., if you’re accused of making critical errors that you’ve never heard about, ask to see the work and have the errors pointed out to you.)
d. Why am I being written up, instead of offered guidance, mentoring or training?
e. Other questions related to specifics of your individual circumstances.

I know it’s easy to get frustrated by fraudulent performance allegations and traps. But, try to see through the frustration and look at these things as your employer helping you to prove a case against them. If they want to break the law and continue to harass you, create a hostile work environment for you and/or by retaliating against you for complaining, document everything and ask lots of questions. Get the answers in writing. An internal and/or external investigation or a lawyer will do the rest—depending on how you choose to pursue the issue.


Blogger Brian said...

Dear Mrs. Wells, I appreciate your Blog in which I have received a great education that you provided. I am an African American male who is 42 years of age with professional degrees earned in the health care field. I have been discriminated against more times than I can recall and if I came across your blog years ago than I would have been more successful in my fight against racism. Racism appears to be getting worse and the ability to fight it is also becoming more difficult. Employers now days are extremely savvy about protecting their racial policies. My recent bout with racism occurred just this month of February of 2009, black history month. I was terminated for allegedly creating a hostile environment and being non-cooperative with my supervisor, which is ludicrous. In I reality defended another minority who was being singled out unfairly for a work violation that is selectively enforced toward minorities. When I complained to my supervisor I was fired almost immediately. All these occurrences have been documented by emails and yes I do have a copy of each email.

However, when I requested, in writing, the specific reason for termination, I was told that I had not been terminated, but instead I had voluntary resigned. Have I been tricked into resigning? The termination came during a phone conversation between an administrative official and myself. The official use a play on words in which he stated’
“I have decided that your behavior is grounds for termination in which you are to immediately resign, so I need for you to turn in your I.D. Badge.”
The next day I thought that being terminated over the phone was a little suspicious so I called HR and requested termination documentation. HR did not respond to my calls in which four messages were left. one week latter, HR sent documentation stating that I had voluntary resigned at the request of the Program Director, which is simply not true. I thought I might have been fouled by a play on words. I agreed to turn in my keys in which I thought I was being terminated. However, the HR documentation suggested that when I agreed to turn in my keys that I also agreed to resign and by turning in my keys is proof that I resigned.

So now I am wondering, is this considered a resignation or termination? I have filed with the EEOC and have seen an attorney. The attorney has suggested that the case appears to be Wrongful Discharge, but the awarded damages will not be significant enough to proceed. This is because I had a contract that would have ended three weeks before I was terminated, so the damages awarded would be minimal. I live in the employee-at-will state of Arizona, which is mistake number one.

If this post can help one person than it was all worth it in the end. Mrs. Wills, I think it is great educating individuals on discrimination in the work place. Sometimes it is blatant, but most of the time it is subtle and tricky.


6:37 PM  
Blogger EmployeeSpeak said...

Summarizing and Analyzing

(Note: there are footnotes that I realize are not transferring, nor is the document formatting, so I apologize in advance for that)

…and in conclusion---this is a story of a specific workplace experience, but why?
I’m going to begin this at the end to try to provide a context for this exercise. This is a story about workplace conditions but they specifically describe the conditions that I encountered (which of course is all I can describe). My experiences are shared here to the extent that they mirror common regular encounters in workplaces around the city, state and country. The commonality is the point of focus, and in that regard, common problems lead to common solutions, or if not solutions, at least common grounds for discussion by shining light on the situations. So here’s my story:

arbitrary or reality based judgments?
I worked as a secretary in the New York office of a large law firm, Mayer Brown. When first hired I was assigned to two partners by the secretarial managers. They did not meet me in advance of the placement nor I them. This was different from my prior experiences where part of the hiring process included an interview with the attorney.
One of the attorneys I was assigned to was almost 100% non communicative beyond good morning or good night. He prided himself on having very little use for a secretary and so I performed the work I did for him with the barest, minimal verbal communication. The work I did for him included: entered his time, opened his mail, ordered supplies, did some filing and managed files in LegalKey, ordered cars, made some travel arrangements, created out-of-office itineraries, did some outlook contact work, did new matter related tasks, set up conference calls, occasionally mailed out letters/packages, answered phones and facilitated communications when the attorney was out of the office (which he was frequently), and handled the occasional odd additional task. Given this minimalist communications context, I made it a point to ask directly if there were other ways I might be of assistance and expressed clearly that I stood ready to respond to any requests, when and if they were forthcoming.
The second partner to whom I was assigned was somewhat more communicative with instructions. I essentially performed the same complex of previously listed tasks for this attorney as well, with some minor variations, and similarly with partner number two, I also made it a point to request additional work or to seek out other ways I might better assist him. The first year passed. I entered the first round of performance evaluations at the one year anniversary. Non communicative partner #1 did not submit an evaluation. He was a very busy attorney and probably just didn’t have time. I received overall positive evaluations from the associates I was assigned to, as well as from the secretarial managers. Partner #2’s evaluation, much to my surprise, included checks in the “marginal” column for the following:
· Demonstrates common sense judgment
· Identifies problems, responds quickly, takes or recommends actions, selects best solution
· Ability to handle multiple tasks at once
· Is reliable
· Answers telephones promptly and professionally and takes accurate messages
I was befuddled as to where all these “marginal” designations were coming from because they were not preceded by any indication of dissatisfaction, verbal, written, body language including disapproving scowls or otherwise. I had/have no problem accepting negative evaluation if you tell me what I did wrong. After serious reflection, I was at a loss to identify instances where I had committed any of the listed offenses, let alone all 5 different types and certainly with such regularity to warrant “marginal”.
Additionally, to my way of thinking,
· an accusation of a demonstration of a lack of common sense should call to mind some non-sensical or silly action;
· problems that were repeatedly not addressed should have been easy to enumerate or at least provide one instance;
· a multiple task flub should be citable as in “I gave her x, y and z and she blew y and z”;
· unreliability is also not vague --- e.g.: she is out frequently, she is always late for work, or she messenger-ed a package to the wrong address; and
· last but not least, if your secretary consistently screws up your telephone messages, (or even inconsistently) you might be able to recount the pattern or one particular instance or provide some substantiation or simply just mention that you have expressed dissatisfaction directly to her when or after it happened.
I asked the evaluating secretarial managers for such substantiating evidence for these marginal marks, but they were unable to provide any. Their methodology was to speak to and be the conduit for the attorney’s comments.
That being the case, in my pro-active effort to hone in on what this was all about for the future, I resolved to identify specific instances where I committed such offenses. Since this attorney was also very busy, I tried to make it easy for him to alert me to my marginal missteps by sending him a daily summary of every task I performed for him with the very polite request to point out any instances of the big 5 offenses. I essentially did this every day for the succeeding year. No offenses were ever identified via email or otherwise, however, when it came time for the next evaluation, that partner chose to change secretaries.
The next year (my second at Mayer Brown) I continued on with my work for the remaining partner I was assigned to, the minimalist communicator. The assignment proceeded apace and at the end of that second year, this primary partner also did not submit an evaluation for me. Otherwise, I received positive evaluations from the associates I was assigned to as well as from the secretarial managers. The other partner in our “bay” for whom I provided back-up services on an “as-needed” basis gave me an excellent evaluation writing about how I am always willing and eager to help, which I was.
When the third year rolled around and I still did not receive an evaluation from this partner who was the primary person for me in terms of evaluations, I insisted on receiving the evaluation. Although my evaluation took place in November of 2007, the partner finally submitted an evaluation for me in March of 2008. Non communicative partner gave me “marginal” checks in these columns:
· Demonstrates common sense judgment
· Organizational skills, keeps attorney organized
· Answers telephones promptly and professionally and takes accurate messages
His overall additional comments were: “…she is pleasant to work with. There are problems of judgment at times and things are not always done with the necessary accuracy but she seems to try her best.”
Once again, there had been no indication of any of these problems throughout the (now) three year period I had worked for this gentleman, even as I continued to periodically seek out input and direction from him. Always open to constructive criticism based on actual problems, no specific instances or examples of any of this marginal behavior was given. As a matter of fact, when I asked the secretarial managers to give an example of “not demonstrating common sense judgment” she listed one of her own , but nothing from the partner in question. She also said she was sure there were more instances, but she just couldn’t think of them at the time and that she would get back to me!! She never did get back to me, although I followed up with her by email on several occasions. My other evaluations from my associates as well as from the “bay” partner for whom I provided backup services on as as-needed basis were all excellent.
Movement to a different group
Not long after this negative evaluation from my partner came in, a restructuring of the secretarial department was implemented to respond to the economic contractions taking place throughout the county, and all secretaries were encouraged to find a place within a new group or team by applying for newly created spots which came with new titles. The 3 available titles were administrative team lead, document specialist and administrative assistant. Since I could hardly call myself a document specialist, given the paucity of document work requested of me in this office, and since I had no interest in being a team lead, by default the only remaining possibility was an administrative assistance spot. This was on a litigation “team” with a completely different group of attorneys.
The “team” at work
In this litigation group I’d joined, I reported directly to the Administrative Team Lead (ATL), who had worked with the attorneys in this group for years. There was great respect and admiration between these attorneys and their secretary, the ATL. Here I had no direct work association with the attorneys. All tasks were meted out by the ATL. The tasks I was given to perform were: printing documents, making copies, expense reporting, entering contacts and travel itineraries into outlook, mailing out a random package here and there or occasionally some document filing in the legalkey system and answering associates phones . When the team system was initiated the administrative assistant spot was never marketed as a drastic demotion but that it what it turned out to be in actuality. Anything more complicated than making a copy was what I was limited to, nonetheless, there would come a time when the ATL would attempt to paint a picture of me as incompenent to performing even these menial tasks. What precipitated that I have no idea. Presumably I committed some unknown offense. I’d love to hear it articulated. I always did the few things assigned to me and that was it. But I’m jumping a little ahead.
When it came time for my 4th year evaluation, the attorneys on this team (with whom I had no direct association you will recall) gave me positive evaluations (amazingily, they didn’t even question my common sense). That means that they got all their input from the ATL who became my defacto boss. Sometime between when I got my evaluation in November and the end of December I did something to run afoul of the good graces of the ATL and she commenced a campaign against me. I began to be under hyper scrutiny, aware that I better document everything I did by email. The ATL began to do the same thing. Before the end of December I was called before the secretarial manager and it seems the same attorneys who had just positively evaluated me a month before were now saying I’d suddenly plummeted in my performance (which again, I didn’t do anything for them directly, everything I did was for the ATL). Compared to previous allegations however, at least I was finally being charged with something concrete. Three charges to be exact, two of which were blatantly false, but I conceded my error in the third instance and accepted responsibility for it. Of the two allegations that were false, no proof was presented for one and the other was an amazing attempt to frame me up by giving me a huge print job at 4:45 on the afternoon of Dec. 23rd, and told it had to go out the next day. I worked on the job that night until I left and all the next day. The ATL never expressed any urgency or details about when it had to go out, but when I asked her about it in the afternoon she said “oh it should have gone one this morning”. So when I was brought before the secretarial manager on this issue the allegation was put forth I hadn’t worked on the job when it was given to me on the 23rd. I submitted irrefutable evidence that I worked on the job until I left work the 23rd (thank God for computer timestamps), and she knew I worked on the project all day the 24th. This so-called “rush” project that “had to go out by messenger the morning of Dec. 24th never went anywhere and remained sitting on the ATL’s desk for literally months (I even took pictures). Of course, if it had actually been a “real” rush project, the ATL would have made arrangements for the project to be completed by the word processing department overnight.

Back to the conclusion
So, bottom line, what is the point of this? It is certainly not to parse the vagaries of office politics. Unfortunately, I had to work thru presenting my specific gory details simply to paint a picture of some of the problems I dealt with, and that many of us frequently have to deal with. I said that in the wider world of ethical workplace behavior, some professionals do attempt to hold themselves as well as their employees to a standard. I’ve also worked in these types of offices and it is good to have experiences to compare. Regardless of what side of the table you find yourself on (top dog or underdog) I have no doubt that everyone is in favor of ethical standards and fair treatment for themselves and their loved ones at least.

In a right to work world where we realize we can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, is there anything to be gained from giving consideration to such issues with a view toward improvements? How can employees, especially in the staff and non-exempt realm have a say in their workplace experiences, or can they? Is there any value in reviewing what a conscientious employee should look for in a desirable workplace and how? Does such a thing as a toxic workplace culture exist, and if so how would one identify such a place – are there telltale signs to look for or questions that could be asked, preferably prior to employment? Can employees evaluate their employers? What about employee networking – does that hold any promise for providing insight? Are there currently existing organizations, listservs, blogs or other employee based affinity grouping that might help provide answers?
While we all want to and must move past any negative experience we may have had, it remains instructive to analytically review what went right and wrong in any employment experience. Often other professionals can help and provide a guide for the future, especially for our children who can look forward to repeating our experiences if we don’t take time to try and raise the bar to simple fairness.

3:24 PM  
Anonymous Carol said...

Dear Mrs Wells,

Thank you for posting this blog, I knew that things were looking bleak for me. Instead of fighting back I adapted a flight approach. My life has become so miserable that I have decided to pursue my actual profession instead of this one that I settled into.

Unfortunatly I live in an area that has practiced predjudice behavior for so long it is looked at as the norm. My self esteem has taken a turn. My coping mechanism is prayer it works until the next time I pray again. I am not looking for negative results,but I'm so tired of being bullied when I only want to do my work,that I am very good at and go home.

There is no sound proof that Racism is the issue, but every where I go as a professional black women, good looking I might ad it becomes an issue. My Korean friend informed me I would have a problem once I moved to Kentucky 14 years ago, but he never elaborated he only said I was confident and not hard to look at and that I would have a big problem sooner than later. I laughed thinking he couldn't be serious how wrong I was.

My supervisor first accused me of treating customers with abrupt speach and yelling and statements like Mr. Owens said that you told him to sit down and shut up. These are things I would never do as a professional and are totally out of character which she admitted,but still brought me to the CEO of the company to write me up. Then there was a second incident when I was told by the CNO that a mother complained that I acted as if I did not want to touch her son. The CNO replied if you have trouble touching people than I should know about this.

This left me in an emotional state so much that I cried and stated I am bending over backwards to make others comfortable. The CNO replied look at the way your acting your over reacting. I gained my composure and looked her square in the face and said I'm emotional, but not without cause. The CNO said I heard someone died, why didn't you tell your supervisor perhaps thats why you responded to the client in that manner.

What I gained from the conversation is that she was willing and ready to impute wrong motives on me, because of the past conversation I had with the CEO regarding Mr. Owens.

7:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This doesn't only apply to blacks. Discrimination comes with envy, fear and hatred. My supervisor is Jamaican and I'm Cuban, albeit both Caribbean she cannot stand me. Trust me, this woman goes by the book and had been fine tooth combing my work for 3 years. I do not fit the criteria for the kind person she wants in her department. She's been waiting, sitting on her web... like a hairy little spider.

It's a nasty feeling and I'm fighting but not as hard as she is. I know the truth and God does not like ugly. She better watch out!

5:21 PM  

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