Although you may have heard that North Carolina is an "at-will" employment state, you have a right to work in a job free from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation based on unlawful reasons! If your boss is targeting you with inappropriate workplace activity, here are some tips to help build your case.
As a disclaimer, this is being given for general informational purposes, and does not constitute a legal analysis of your situation; in fact, your circumstances may cause some of this information to be inapplicable to you. You should consult with an attorney - such as Clark D. Tew at Homesley & Wingo Law Group - at your earliest convenience before taking any action.
1. Unless you are forced to, do not quit!
Until recently, quitting your job in North Carolina was almost always fatal to an employment law claim. Even now, it may have a substantial impact on your case, and may cut off whatever damages are available to you. If you do quit, you have to show that you suffered from "constructive termination". "Constructive termination" - meaning you were forced to quit because of your intolerable working conditions, only gives rise to a claim for discrimination in a small number of situations. Therefore, unless you've talked to your attorney and she or he has assured you that you can quit, or unless you must absolutely quit to preserve your health, religious beliefs, or sanity, don't do it.
2. Keep a journal.
Far too often, clients forget important dates, key details, and names of involved coworkers. That can be solved by keeping a detailed journal - but don't keep a journal just of the bad things. Keep a journal of every day, even if you don't write anything other than a brief summary of your day. That way, when your journal goes into evidence, it's clear that you weren't just selectively writing about the bad things that happened to you. On the other hand, your journal will likely need to get into evidence, so keep it strictly professional, unless you're talking about your own personal psychological and medical issues resulting from your treatment at work.
3. Make any complaints in writing.
Complaining to your boss or HR on the phone or in person is fine, but it's not going to serve as great evidence in a lawsuit. Writing is always best, but it's probably worth consulting with an attorney before you hit "send" on your complaint.
4. If advised to do so by an attorney, record your meeting with HR or your boss.
In North Carolina, you can generally record a conversation provided you're part of it. Now that everyone's cell phone has a pretty sensitive recording microphone on it, people are able to get very clear recordings with their devices in their pockets, purses, or just on the table. You may not have to ask for permission from HR or your boss to record the conversation. Speak with an attorney about this if you have questions, because there are certain instances in which recording audio may not be permitted, and a recent statute passed by the North Carolina General Assembly may prohibit the recording of audio or video in certain employment situations.
5. Print incriminating evidence.
When you have a lawsuit for discrimination, the employer usually holds all of the cards. If you have any e-mails, memos, text messages, or other communication that you received or were copied on that you think can prove your case, print out a copy for your use later. Consult with an attorney before doing this, however, as some documents may contain "trade secrets" or other confidential information, and if so, you could have liability for misappropriating that information. Don't forward e-mails directly to your attorney from your work account, as those may not be protected as attorney-client privileged.
6. Speak with an attorney before things go from bad to worse.
Often employees will wait until well after they have been terminated to speak with an attorney. This may be too late, as there are things you can do during your employment - like file written HR complaints or filing EEOC charges - that may have improved your case once you are terminated. While it may seem odd, some attorneys like to get involved early in a case so that they can steer you into a more optimal position when it comes time to take legal action against your employer. In particular, look for an attorney who is willing to take your case from the start, and will assist you all the way to trial.
7. Keep on your best behavior.
Even if you've complained to HR, filed an EEOC charge, and tipped off the United States Department of Labor, an employer can still terminate you from employment if you violate their work rules, stop showing up to work, or engage in misbehavior. While you still may have claims against your employer, that wold put a kink in your plans, and make your case more difficult to pursue. Don't give your boss any ammunition!
8. Feel free to talk to other employees that you know have been treated similarly.
As a private employee, you have a right, under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act to engage in "concerted activity", which can include discussing the circumstances of your harassment or discrimination with your coworkers. Doing so can result in finding witnesses for your own case, and can result in learning information about other related instances of misconduct by your employer. If you are caught discussing these issues with your coworkers and are terminated, you may have a claim with the National Labor Relations Board (the North Carolina office is in Winston-Salem) for an unfair labor practice.
Employment disputes can be a scary and uncertain time for any employee regardless of how much you're paid or what type of job you have. Reach out to Clark D. Tew with our firm today if you have any concerns about your current or past employment situation.