A phrase like “take care and get rest” sounds innocuous to most, but saying it at one big law firm almost got a Midtown resident fired.
Joan Smith (real name withheld) had just finished training incoming associates over Zoom when she “thought it was important to caution them about overworking at the expense of their health,” she said.
Smith had reason to provide such guidance. According to career advice Web site Balance Careers, at some big law firms, associates “are expected to bill at least 2,000 hours per year.” That means spending almost 3,000 hours on the job annually, according to the Yale Office of Development.
“I didn’t think that saying something like that could get me in trouble,” Smith said. But it wasn’t long before she was contacted by human resources. “I was told I went beyond the responsibilities of the job I was hired for,” said Smith. She asked if she was fired. “Not yet” was the answer.
Smith thought about complaining to one of the firm’s partners, but fearing it could cost her the job, she bit her tongue.
All too often, employees choose to grin and bear undesirable job-related scenarios rather than risk airing their grievances. A study by Elements Global Services found that 49 percent of workers have neglected to report something for fear of retaliation. And who can blame them, when 63 percent of employees who file an equal employment discrimination complaint lose their jobs. Not only that, but more than 60 percent of employees stated that they didn’t feel like reporting a problem would lead to any change.
And while Smith was simply trying to say, “Look out for yourself because the company won’t,” due to her experience, she doesn’t recommend they complain to human resources. “My company’s HR department’s attitude is ‘We’re here to protect the company. If you don’t like it here, you’re free to leave,’ ” said Smith
Big law is hardly the only sector where this happens. Howard Lutnick, CEO of financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald L.P., recently warned associates about complaining. “Young bankers who decide they’re working too hard — choose another living is my view,” he said.
But the balance of power is beginning to shift.
“First there was #MeToo, and now COVID has made everything screwy. Many have decided, ‘I’m not going to deal with it [bad bosses, poor conditions, company policies, bullying] anymore,’ ” said attorney, author and workplace coach Heather Hansen. “People are burned out, their reserves limited. They aren’t going to be willing to deal with a snarky co-worker or nasty boss.”
If they quit as a result, “huge amounts of brainpower will be lost and it will present a great cost to employers,” added Hansen.
Some corporate leaders are beginning to recognize this, extending the focus of their human resources departments from simply hiring workers and protecting the company to “creating a culture where employees feel welcomed, safe (psychologically and physically), confident and open to sharing,” said management consultant Susan Hatfield, whose expertise is in people management and organizational development.
Some employers, like Soho’s Flatiron Health, are stepping up by designing their human resources around employees from the start.
“We’ve always focused on employees and creating the best possible experience for them,” said Alex Buder Shapiro, the company’s chief people officer. So aside from the usual functions like recruiting, benefits and compensation, the Flatiron team focuses on organizational effectiveness, talent development and learning. When it comes to workers having issues, there’s a confidential protective hotline, transparent communication, an active Slack channel and even assigned people team members who work with managers one-on-one to explore what might need to look different.
There are also tools available that can help protect workers. All Voices offers employers an “employee feedback management platform,” including a hotline where workers can communicate their concerns to management without fear of retaliation. These sites are typically easy to use, encrypted, secure, anonymous and offer options around taking action.
Companies are also more transparent thanks to sites like Glassdoor and “Best Places to Work” reports, but all this doesn’t mean that employees who have bad experiences should keep silent.
Workplace consultant, investigator and former trial lawyer Tracy A. Pearson, J.D., said that if a worker believes they have experienced bullying, harassment, intimidation, retaliation or threats, they should report the problem right away. HR is supposed to investigate the matter or refer it out for investigation.
“Once the complaint is received, the worker is protected from retaliation,” she said.
“Many people become their own worst enemy by not reporting soon enough and they allow it to go on for too long, which can have devastating effects on health and happiness. I cannot stress enough: It’s the responsibility of an organization to provide a healthy and safe work environment, but it cannot resolve issues if it doesn’t know about them. Employees are better protected by speaking up.”
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