Working for Justice

Lady Lawyer Lessons*: Taking a Stand

Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what it means to take a stand in the workplace.  Perhaps it was the hubbub around the threat to retaliate against Emma Watson that got me thinking about it.  Perhaps it was hearing my client Donna Kassman talk about why she chose to come forward and file a lawsuit against her employer.  Perhaps it was the fact that, starting this week, almost 9,000 women are being given the opportunity to join a case challenging pay discrimination at KPMG.

Whatever the reason, most of us – men and women – will be confronted with something that seems unfair or inequitable in our workplaces.  At that moment, we all have to make a choice: do we take a stand or do we quietly hope someone else will step up to handle things.  That choice can be scary, particularly after the economic downturn has made job insecurity the new norm.  But harkening back to my days as an elementary school teacher, what I told my students then remains true now; our character and values aren’t really defined by what we do when it is easy, it is what we do when it is hard that counts.

There are, however, some ways that you can take a stand while also maintaining your professional savvy.  Some things to keep in mind when you’re confronted with something that piques your ethical antenna:

  1. Identify allies higher in the hierarchical chain before you need them.  Figuring out who is going to take issues of fairness and equality seriously may take some time, but it is worth doing.  Keep in mind that an ally might not always be obvious.  Just because someone is a woman, a person of color or is designated as a “diversity” person doesn’t mean that they are your best choice.  Look for people who make careful decisions, who have been willing to make difficult or unpopular recommendations or choices, and who seem to prioritize the company’s best interests rather than their own.  Also, keep your ear to the ground for people who have a reputation for being trustworthy.  When you’re in the thick of a dilemma, it can be hard to discern who to trust.  If you have some idea of who your go-to people will be in advance, you’re in a much better place.
  2. Remember your interventions are helping and protecting the company.  Discrimination and unfair treatment is bad business – a company isn’t running logically if good employees are being punished or overlooked and bad employees are coasting through or avoiding accountability because of their respective identities.  Whether or not you are in a managerial role, you can voice your concerns through the lens of rational decision-making.  For example, if you know that your colleague Sarah seems to be being overlooked for leadership opportunities, you can raise this in an email or private call to leadership where you praise Sarah’s accomplishments and make the case for why her talents are something you believe the employer should capitalize on further.  No employer wants to lose or waste talent.  Also, keep in mind that many companies have policies that formally require you report any concerns you might have on your own behalf or on behalf of others.  So, when you speak up, you are often doing what you’ve been told you must (and, just like everything else, be sure you document it)!
  3. Don’t shy away from the “Act Now” scenarios.  Some things might happen in the workplace that creates an “act now” moment.  For example, if a coworker uses a racial slur or makes fun of a colleague for not dressing “sexy” enough, that might constitute an “act now” moment.  Sometimes, something as small as a comment such as “that’s not ok” or “I don’t think what you’re saying is fair or right” can have a significant impact.  Many of the cases that end up in litigation all share the common characteristic of having a culture where the bad apples were allowed to poison the environment unchecked.  A few moments of discomfort when you say something small may prevent months or years of your, your colleagues’, and your company’s discomfort if legal intervention becomes necessary.  In addition, others who didn’t speak up in the moment are likely to thank you for it later.
  4. Take comfort in numbers.  This animal instinct that serves the wild kingdom well can serve you well in the jungle that is the modern workplace.  Reach out to others in your environment who might have witnessed something problematic or who might be suffering from the same problems you are.  These conversations can be casual and provide a good opportunity for you and others to contextualize your experiences and identify any patterns you might have missed in your own, more limited, perspective.  If you can form collectives – even of just a handful of people – your employer is much more likely to take what you all have to say seriously and is much more likely to do something to address the problem you’ve identified.

Those steps are just some ways that can ease some of the anxiety that naturally surrounds speaking up and taking a stand.  However, there is something more that is also very important.  For whatever reason, for many of us, it is easier to take a stand on behalf of others than it is to take a stand on our own behalf.  I get it; I’m the same way.  But as a client once explained it, standing up for herself was standing up for her daughter; for her colleagues; and for anyone else, she could protect by letting her employer know that treating someone that way wasn’t ok.  So, not only are you worth standing up for as an individual but in taking a stand, you’re also taking a stand for better, more equitable workplaces – something that benefits everyone.  Plus, there are plenty of companies out there that want to do the right thing; it is just a matter of getting the right people, high enough up the chain of command, to learn about a problem so they have a chance to fix it.

At the end of the day, when we’re confronted with a choice to either take a stand for fair and equitable treatment in the workplace, that choice can be hard whether or not taking a stand seems to be for merely our own individual benefit or for the benefit of others as well.  In my experience counseling and representing thousands of employees across the country, most people really do care about doing what is right – even when it is hard and even when it is scary.  Hopefully, the above tips can help make that choice a little less hard and a little less scary.

* Lady Lawyer Lessons is a monthly column where Kate K shares tips she wishes her clients knew before they came to her (or any other lawyer) for help or advice. As always, this is not intended to constitute legal advice or to create an attorney-client relationship.  Instead, these are just some of Kate’s “rules of the employment road” that are often a good idea but may not apply in a particular situation.

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Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP is a nationwide litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. We represent individuals against powerful interests. We act as a private attorney general in support of the private and public good. Learn More

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