You might think that a lowly corporate button-pusher like yourself would never be the target of work-related legal action. For the most part, you’re probably right. After all, lawyers like to aim their multi-million-dollar lawsuits at your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss since they’re more likely than you to have the big bucks. But there are still plenty of ways that a small fry like you can end up on the wrong side of the legal playing field at work. Fortunately there are also lots of simple steps you can take to help lessen the chance that you’ll be hauled before a judge because of something you did in the workplace.
- Know the law. Whether you work for a defense contractor or a fuzzy dice manufacturer, there will be different rules and regulations established by the government to make sure your business is on the up and up. Your corporate policies will cover the most important of these laws in detail, so be sure to review them closely. For example, should an employee violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, he or she could be personally liable for up to $1 million in fines… not to mention some serious prison time.
- Know the rules. Be sure to go over all of your company’s corporate policies so that one of them doesn’t jump up and bite you in the butt later. Don’t know where those policies are? Ask your manager! He or she will appreciate that you’re taking an interest in helping to create a safe and legally sound workplace.
- Behave yourself. You may see those silly sexual harassment videos at work where the guy openly harasses some poor secretary and think, “Nobody acts like that anymore.” Tell that to the lawyers who are putting their kids through college thanks to harassment lawsuits. Remember that you’re in a professional environment and your behavior needs to reflect this. Yes, ladies, as sexy and irresistible as I may be, you really need to stop slapping me on the butt all the time at work.
- Be aware of your surroundings. It’s such an important aspect of leading a lawsuit-free life that it got a day of its own. Don’t run through corridors carrying an open cup of coffee. Don’t ram your way through heavily-trafficked doors. And remember that stop signs in your workplace’s parking lot really do mean stop.
- Document everything. How great would it be if your company could avoid a bankrupting lawsuit that would land its board of directors in jail if it could be shown that some lowly clerk in accounting was responsible for sending those top secret missile plans to a hostile country? But what if you were that lowly clerk and you didn’t even know your company made missiles? This example may be a little far-fetched, but it serves to demonstrate how important it is for you to document your work and your role within the company so that you won’t be the unlucky scapegoat should something bad go down.
- Ethics first. Hopefully you’ll never be placed into a situation where you’re asked to compromise your ethics for the good of the business. But if you are, don’t think you’re free and clear if you simply don’t participate in whatever schemes your boss is cooking up. Sometimes having knowledge of potential wrongdoing can be just as bad as if you had committed the wrongdoing yourself. If you suspect something shady is taking place, do the right thing and blow the whistle.
- Keep a clean computer. Here’s a surprising statistic: employees with computers in their office spend 94% of their time looking at internet pornography. (The other 6% of the time, they’re looking up phony statistics on Punny Money.) If you’re one of these folks, you might think the worst that could happen to you would be that you’d lose your job if you’re caught. If your boss is nice, maybe that’s all that would happen. In reality, your company could go after you for every penny of your salary since you started there plus extra damages plus court and attorney costs. So leave the naughtiness in your bedroom where it belongs.
- Avoid conflicts of interest. Say you work for the nation’s premier supplier of spring-loaded counterbalances. Nobody makes spring-loaded counterbalances like your company, and the government is hurting in a major way for some spring-loaded counterbalances. You win a multi-billion-dollar contract to supply the government with millions of your lovely spring-loaded counterbalances, but there’s just one tiny problem: you neglected to mention that your spouse works at the United States Department of Spring-Loaded Devices. Your competitors in the spring-loaded counterbalance industry send an entire graduating class of Harvard Law School after you, and the government suspends the contract. All of this could have been avoided if you had revealed your potential conflict of interest ahead of time. Way to go, you; I guess the government will be looking to fill its spring-loaded counterbalance needs elsewhere.
- Make friends with your legal department. Especially if you work for a big-name corporation, there’s probably a small army of lawyers at work behind the scenes making sure your company isn’t sued into the ground on a daily basis. These folks are also there to guide you in your everyday business decisions, so don’t hesitate to call on them if you’re in need of legal guidance regarding a work-related matter. They’ll thank you for coming to them first rather than after you’ve gotten your company sued.
That about does it for lawsuit-proofing your career, but don’t hesitate to share your own ideas for staying out of legal trouble at work. In day five, we’ll talk about how a little paperwork and some careful organization can help protect you from a devastating lawsuit.