It's not as widely known as I hope, but there are a host of workplace protections that apply to non-union, salaried, overtime exempt workers. Not all of them are written into the legal code, and are, in fact, work-arounds. To explain what I'm talking about, read this:
This is a small sample-set, but it works to illustrate the point I'm about to make.
If you find yourself in the position of reporting a coworker to HR for harassing behavior, suddenly find your performance reviews solidly in needs improvement territory, and get fired later; there are workplace protections that will help you get through this, and make the life of your harasser less good.
To get there, here are a few facts and common practices that contribute to the firing, and what could happen afterwards:
- Performance reviews are as much subjective as objective.
- Tattling on a co-worker can make the perception of your work move from team player to troublemaker.
- When the perception shifts like that, top-marks reviews suddenly become remediation-required reviews.
- Due to US labor law, as amended by State laws, creating a hostile work environment due to sexism, racism, etc, is a criminal act.
- In spite of that law, very few cases are seen in court, and even fewer reach a verdict.
- At-will laws mean you can be fired without stated cause.
- Everyone has a price for their silence.
- Pathologic workplace cultures have no room for empathy.
Performance Reviews, and Career Improvement Plans
These are often used as the basis for a firing decision. Not all workplaces do them, but many do. It may be hidden in the OKR process, in 360-degree reviews, or another company-goal tracking system, but it's still there. Sometimes they're simple exceeds/meets/needs-improvement metrics, or 1 to 5 ranked metrics, and always have manager input on them.
All of them have some component of plays well with others as one of the tracked metrics. No one likes working with assholes, and this is how they track that. Unfortunately, tattling to mommy that Kenny was mean to her is often seen as not playing well with others.
Buying Your Silence
The severance process you go through after termination is there to buy your silence. Employers know full well there is a marketplace of opinion on good places to work, and if they can keep you from bagging on them on Glassdoor or social media, that's a win for them. You also get a month or two of paid healthcare as you look for someplace new. The method of doing this is called a non-disparagement clause in the severance agreement.
Laws are there to incentivise people to not get caught
If you have a good enough papertrail to plausibly bring suit against the company for one of the legally protected things like racism or sexism, there are strong incentives for them to settle this out of court. Everyone has a price, and most people have a price that doesn't include a written admission of guilt as a requirement. This is why there are so few actions brought against companies in court.
Of the three Westrum Typology types of corporate communication styles (Pathological, Bureaucratic, Generative), it's the pathologic that fundamentally treats non-managers as objects. When you're an object, it doesn't matter if your fee-fees get hurt; what matters is that you're on-side and loyal. If you are seen to be disloyal, you will need to find a new master to swear your fealty to or you will be disposed of through the usual at-will / severance means.
Not all companies are pathologic. The studies I've seen says it's less than a quarter. That said, if the company is big enough you can quite definitely have portions of it that are pathologic while the rest are generative.
That's a lot of framing.
There are certain legal nightmares that companies have with regards to labor laws:
- Having a now-ex employee bring a discrimination suit against them.
- Having a class-action suit brought against a specific manager.
- Having the Department of Labor bring suit against the company for systemic discrimination.
All of these actions are massively public and can't be silenced later. The fact of their filing is damnation enough.
This works for you, even though none of these are likely to come about for your specific case. You see, they're trying to avoid any of that ever happening. To avoid that happening they need to buy you off. Don't think that this is their way of protecting the bad man from any consequence. It's their attempt to, it's up to you to make it actually painful.
Once the third person has been fired and levered themselves into a $200K hush-money severance package, you can guarantee that The Powers That Be are going to sit the bad man down and explain to him that if he doesn't stop with the hands, they're going to have to Do Something; you're costing us a lot of money. One person doing that is just a whiner trying to extort money. Two people getting that is an abundance of whiners. Three people getting that begins to look like a pattern of behavior that is costing the company a lot of money.
This only works because the consequences of simply ignoring your whiny ass are now dire. Thanks, New Deal!