Six Common Mistakes Employees Make in the Employee-Employer Relationship

By Steven Lippman

Employees seek legal advice for a wide variety of reasons, and lawyers can often be helpful in navigating the employee-employer relationship, but lawyers can only advise clients based on the facts at hand. Employees can, and often do, hurt their position by taking actions that limit their legal options or cause unnecessary harm or strain to the employment relationship. Below are six common mistakes made by employees.

1. Signing Contracts Without Negotiating

Many employment relationships begin or end with a contract, and employment contracts are more common now in part because of the rise of the independent contractor in the American economy. Employment contracts and severance agreements are almost always written by the employer, and tend to be employer-friendly. For example, contracts sometimes contain clauses that limit the rights of employees or contractors to bring suits against employers in court in the event of a dispute. They can also grant intellectual property rights in works created by the employee to the employer, and can contain non-compete agreements.

Employees often view employment contracts and severance agreements as take-it-or-leave-it offers, and assume that they have no bargaining power. While the bargaining position of each employee is different, there is nothing preventing employees from negotiating terms of employment or separation agreements to their advantage. Employers often write self-serving terms into employment contracts, and there is no reason employees can’t request terms that are employee-friendly. Employees also often sign such documents without consulting an attorney, which can lead to problems for the employee down the road. An attorney can identify clauses in a contract that may be of concern to an employee, and can either advise the employee as to what to negotiate for, or can negotiate directly on behalf of the employee to improve the terms of the contract.

2. Confusing Mistreatment With Discrimination

In general, it is not illegal for an employer to simply be mean, nasty, or discourteous to an employee, up to a point. Sometimes employees assume that the poor attitude, communication skills or demeanor of a boss or coworker gives rise to a legal claim. I have seen countless discrimination claims filed in which there is no evidence of illegal discrimination or other illegal activity, but in which a boss or coworker is just disagreeable to an employee. The discrimination claim then upsets the alleged perpetrator, and the employee-employer relationship crumbles in a flood of accusations and mutual mistrust.

Employees need to understand their rights before taking actions, such as making baseless accusations of discrimination, that can destroy the employment relationship. Conducting research or consulting with an attorney to determine their legal rights would be a good start.

3. Quitting

The best way to weaken a wrongful termination claim is to voluntarily quit, and constructive discharge claims are very difficult to prove, but employees often do it anyway. Not only can quitting be harmful to an employee’s legal position, it can hurt his or her bargaining power. Employers may be more willing to settle a matter or to grant a more generous severance package if the employer wants to end the employment relationship and the employee is still working. In other words, there can be value in an employee offering to go away, and an employee gives up that value when he or she voluntarily quits.

4. Ignoring Orders

One nearly universal truth in employment law is that you have to do what your boss tells you to do. Insubordination is not viewed kindly by courts and administrative bodies, and can be seen as a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for an employer to take action against an employee. Failure to follow orders can weaken the legal position of an employee by giving the employer an excuse to take action against an employee, up to and including termination.

5. Justifying Bad Behavior with Bad Behavior

Employees sometimes assume that wrongful or even illegal behavior by an employer, coworker or boss somehow justifies bad behavior by the employee. That, of course, is not the case. No matter what an employer, boss or coworker has done, employees should always carry out their duties to the best of their abilities, and should avoid violating employer policies or the law. Poor performance or behavior on the part of the employee can help an employer justify wrongful or even illegal behavior, and can limit the rights of employees.

6. Seeking Punishment Rather than Solutions

Perhaps most common mistake that employees make is to seek some kind of punishment or retribution against the employer in an employment dispute, rather than seeking a solution that works for the employee. People are emotionally invested in their jobs, and when they think that they have been wronged, they often feel the need to strike back at the supposed wrongdoers. While there are circumstances in which employees need to fight for their rights and to stand up for themselves, or even their coworkers, employees should try to view their employment situation with an objective eye, and to work to find a solution that improves their position, not to extract a pound of flesh.

Employees who avoid these common pitfalls can avoid situations that negatively affect their rights, and can put themselves in a better position to get the most out of the employment relationship.

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Six Common Mistakes Employees Make in the Employee-Employer Relationship
Employees seek legal advice for a wide variety of reasons, and lawyers can often be helpful in na...