Any legal dispute is stressful. Even the strongest characters in the world will have sleepless nights worrying about the consequences if they lose, and so they should. It is stressful, especially when your reputation, career and source of income are at stake.
This section is to help provide a few very practical tips.
1. Act in haste, repent at leisure
We would all like to tell our colleague exactly where he can put his job, but, for once, just don't do it! Threatening behaviour is a very strong ground for throwing you out of the building there and then, no matter what the background is.
If your colleague really is as unscrupulous, manipulative, devious and untrustworthy as you think he is then he may well be trying to bait you into losing your temper. So your seconds of fun may not only damage your prospects, but also actually give him exactly what he wants. Bite your tongue, be polite and unnerve him!
2. Build up the evidence
The first thing any lawyer will ask for is evidence, so make sure you have lots of it. Dramatic events or shocking quotes make for good press coverage, and the threat of publicity is a good way to win a negotiation.
Keep a written record
If anything is said which you think is outrageous or unfair, make a written record of it immediately. It is usually a good idea if the person you object to actually sees you writing it down.
You may want to read it back to them and ask them to confirm the record. They will either backtrack very quickly indeed or give you some very helpful evidence. Keep copies of memos, emails etc.
Keep a diary
Keeping a long and detailed diary can be very powerful indeed. It makes the difference between saying "he was often unpleasant" and saying "between 1 Jan and 31 March my client had 48 occasions when you behaved in an unpleasant manner. And here they are ...". The latter is much more powerful. You may also find that the process of writing down your complaint helps to give you a clearer perspective.
Keep a record of similar incidents
Tribunals like to see consistency. If one colleague is caught fiddling his expense claim and is let off with a mild rebuke, but another is sacked for a similar offence then this will become a big issue in front to the tribunals. Keep your eyes and ears open for similar offences and, again, get as much information as possible.
3. Complain, don't moan
You need to start to take action. Saying to yourself that it isn't fair will get you nowhere in terms of a legal dispute. You must start to take action. The nature of what you should do will obviously depend upon the circumstances of your complaint, but you must do something.
Tolerating unacceptable behaviour for too long without doing anything about it seriously weakens many complaints. A tribunal may well infer that the employee did not find such conduct particularly disturbing.
Acting swiftly is extremely important if you want to claim constructive dismissal. This might arise if you feel you are being unofficially demoted etc. You will need to take immediate advice on this. If you wait more than a week without acting your case will be seriously, possibly fatally, weakened.
4. Follow the right procedure
Most companies now have a written procedure for grievances etc. Follow it closely and ensure you have a clear written record of what has happened, what replies you receive etc. Tribunals will look very closely at whether procedures were followed or not. They take a dim view when either side departs from them, so make sure you follow it closely and can prove that you did so.
5. What do you want?
This is the question that often stumps any client. You may have been unfairly treated, but what do you want to happen? Do you want cash compensation? Do you want to leave without notice? Do you want your old job back? Do you want a colleague to be dismissed? Do you want more training?
Remember, the tribunals don't exist to offer you tea and sympathy, they are there to make an order that someone does something. From the very beginning write down what exactly you want to happen. This task of writing it down will clear your mind.
If you have are fed up with a company then no tribunal can do anything about it, certainly not in the short term. In those circumstances you will be better off by looking for another job without using the lawyers at all.
Reading this section very carefully will explain the type of orders the tribunals and courts can make (and those that they cannot make) and how they calculate the amount of cash compensation.
What you want should pass the SMART test as much as any other personal goal. Write down what you want, then ask yourself yourself if it is:
You will save a lot of time, energy and money if you concentrate on this from the outset. Goals like "I want to get my even with the [email protected]#*#%d" won't pass this test. Goals like "I want to leave this company by 1 January and be free to approach my clients to bring them with me" will.
Take the time to work out exactly what you want - it is well worth it. Keep reminding yourself of what you want, and when you have it offered to you, take it!
6. Picking a lawyer
Let us assume that the worst position has arisen and you now need to choose a lawyer to help you. It will be disruptive to change your lawyer after you have started, so take time to get the right one.
We cannot recommend a specific firm or individual, but we can offer you a few tips as to what to look for.
- Choose your lawyer carefully. It is a sad fact of life that a good lawyer can make a big difference. Make sure you are happy with yours.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions about their background.
- Don't necessarily use a lawyer you have used for other matters. They may be good at helping you sell your house, but that doesn't make them good at standing up for your rights in an employment tribunal.
- Ask how much experience they have. How many times have they been in a tribunal hearing in the last 12 months? Last 3 years?
- Who will have day to day handling of the matter? You may find that after the first meeting it is a junior employee who handles your case. Ask! At least it will put him on notice that you won't find this acceptable.
- Can they provide you with references?
- Has a friend or colleague used the lawyer? Were they satisfied? Was this for an employment law experience?
- Do you feel comfortable with your lawyer? Personal chemistry is important. If you don't understand what he is saying, ask him to explain again, and again, and again. This is your battle so make sure you understand what is going on.
7. Legal fees
Let's be honest, lawyers are expensive. Ask them to give an estimate of their fees. They usually charge on an hourly rate, so ask what this rate is. They are extremely unlikely to give a fixed price, as no one knows how long the matter will last. But ask them for an estimate and get them to keep you regularly informed as the matter progresses.
Remember: individuals pay VAT too. Check that VAT is included in the estimate. If a lawyer says they charge £1,000 it will be treated as including VAT unless they specify "plus VAT". But it is a lot easier to have this made clear from the outset.
Some lawyers now act on a no-win, no-fee basis. This means you will only pay fees if they win the case. But not all lawyers do this, so ask around. You will probably have to pay their expenses (e.g. travel, court fees etc). Fees will probably be higher on a no-win no fee basis - but then they are taking the risk.
8. Launching the case
Be under no doubt, bringing a legal action is very stressful, so be prepared. This is not to say you shouldn't start a legal action, but don't do it without thinking through exactly what will happen. Most employers are aware of just how stressful this process can be and are often deliberately intimidating. Prepare yourself for this too.
There is a lot of bluff and counter-bluff before the matter is finalised. The stress is usually a lot worse for the employee. The employer has built in support mechanisms that the individual doesn't have. Colleagues may be supportive, but are less likely to be so at work. They have their own careers and lives to handle, so you should look to build up strong friends outside the workplace. You will need them.
9. The tribunal
The prospect of a tribunal appearance can be terrifying. Employers are more experienced and sometimes exploit this to intimidate employees into dropping the case. You have nothing to fear. Tribunals are designed to be informal and employee-friendly. They don't always succeed here, but that is the aim.
Regard it as a business meeting. There will be a panel of probably three who will hear what you have to say. They will be wearing suits, not gowns and wigs. They will ask you questions. Your former employer will have a lawyer who will ask you questions too. Answer honestly, openly and reasonably. Don't try to be smug or 'clever' - it will backfire.
Decide in advance the basic case you have. Sum this up in three short sentences and practice explaining this in advance. Come across as confident and assured, but not as arrogant or unreasonable. Make sure you get your three-sentence message across clearly at the tribunal.
Be polite throughout. Remember this is the only chance your tribunal has to judge you, so create a good impression. Do not become abusive of your former employer; it doesn't look good. Besides, you never know where they will turn up again. It is a small world and the fewer enemies you have the better.
10. When you have won, stop fighting!
Keep your written goal of what you want. Remind yourself of this, constantly. If this is offered to you, take it! Don't waste time and energy fighting over things which aren't important to you. Too often cases get dragged into battles over side issues. This only adds to the fees. Keep focused on what you want.
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