California has some of the strongest legal protections for employees in the country. But when disputes arise in the workplace, many employees aren’t sure whether it’s appropriate to seek legal advice or redress.
In this guide, we’ll outline the five types of employment disputes that we see most often in workplaces in Silicon Valley.
We’ll explain what legal options are available when employees have their rights violated as well as how consulting with an experienced employment attorney can help you get restitution.
If you have questions, If you have questions, please contact a silicon valley employment lawyer online or call (866) 442-6755.
5 Situations When You Should Consult a Silicon Valley Employment Lawyer
1. Bonus Disputes
For many who work in Silicon Valley, bonuses make up a significant part of their annual compensation. Since companies usually pay out these bonuses at the end of the calendar year, employees who leave — or are let go — before that time are often frustrated at losing out on those funds.
However, in certain cases, employees are legally entitled to receive some of that bonus money — even if they’re no longer at their former company when the end-of-year payment period comes.
California law considers certain types of bonuses — known as “earned” or “non-discretionary” bonuses — to be part of an employee’s earned wages.
Under state law, it’s illegal for employers to withhold wages or any kind of compensation that you’ve already legitimately earned.
Here are the key criteria that make a bonus earned/non-discretionary and available for recovery:
- The bonus is based on your performance as an employee. It may be referred to as “incentive compensation,” and it’s specifically linked to the productivity, quality, or efficiency of your work. There is where the “earned” part comes in — the bonus is linked to certain objectives that you have to meet, not the company’s overall success in a year, or your boss’s generosity. These can be concrete, measurable performance goals set out in writing or more general “subjective and non-subjective” factors to be determined between you and your boss.
- The bonus is guaranteed in an employment contract. You know about it in advance and both you and your boss have agreed that you will receive it — provided you meet certain performance metrics. This is usually calculated as a multiplier based on your salary. The final amount can vary depending on what your objectives are and how your employer measures success: e.g. sales made, projects completed, etc.
- The payment is NOT linked to special occasions, like winter holidays or for reaching a milestone for tenure of service with the company. Any payment that can be construed as a gift — and thus given at the discretion and desire of your company — is NOT earned compensation.
Unfortunately, companies may resist paying employees the funds that they’re owed. This can happen when there’s some ambiguity around the terms of the bonus agreement.
For instance, your employer might contest the payment amount for a bonus agreement — especially if the promise was made orally. They may also deny that a bonus that you regularly received in the past was based on non-discretionary (or performance-based) factors.
Fortunately, it’s still possible to win a recovery for an unpaid non-discretionary bonus in California. An employment attorney can assess your employment contract and help you demonstrate that you’ve successfully met the performance metrics set out in the agreement.
If you don’t have a written agreement to point to, a lawyer still can help you prove that you’re owed payment from other evidence of past agreements or payments you’ve received.
With the help of an experienced advocate who’s up-to-date on the latest state labor laws, you can recover a prorated portion of your expected compensation, even if you haven’t worked for the full year.
2. Severance Agreements
Employees across industries and levels of seniority have many misconceptions about severance agreements. For one, although they’re commonly granted to Silicon Valley employees who’ve been laid off, there’s no law guaranteeing that all workers are entitled to a severance package.
A severance agreement is a legally binding contract designed to ease your transition out of the company. Yes, it involves some benefits for you — provided you agree to certain obligations.
That’s why even if you’re leaving your company on relatively good terms, it’s a good idea to consult with a lawyer who can review your agreement.
There’s also no legal standard for calculating whether your severance package is “fair” or not. But an experienced attorney can evaluate your contract and advise you on how to strategically negotiate.
Here are some of the basic parts of a severance package that California employees should look out for:
- Severance pay: lump sum or installments,
- Pay schedule,
- Health benefits under COBRA,
- Outstanding compensation (unpaid bonuses, business expenses, commissions,)
- Payouts for unused personal or vacation days,
- A neutral job reference letter.
An employment attorney can help you diplomatically negotiate the benefits your employer offers so that they best serve you.
For example, you may want to request a cash payout for certain benefits that aren’t relevant to you, like outplacement services designed to help you prepare to find a new career.
An experienced lawyer can also help you understand your part of the severance obligations. Some things often included in severance agreements that can pose challenges to your professional and financial future include:
- Mitigation offsets,
- Non-compete agreements,
- Non-solicitation agreements,
- Confidentiality agreements, and
- Waivers for claims against the company.
A severance package isn’t necessarily a parting gift from your former employer. They’re also getting something from you.
Seek the expertise of an employment lawyer who can help you understand the full extent of your benefits and obligations before signing anything.
3. Wrongful Termination
One big mistake employees make about wrongful firing? They think it’s the same thing as unfair firing.
Since most workers in California are employed at will, your boss can let you go for almost any reason (or no reason) — as long as firing you doesn’t violate the law.
But just because wrongful termination happens less frequently than many employees expect, doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening, or that it can’t happen to you.
California is known for having a particularly robust set of labor laws designed to protect employees from losing their jobs for a number of prejudicial reasons.
For example, it’s illegal for a company to fire someone because they are:
- Serving jury duty,
- Suffering from a serious illness,
- Caring for sick family members,
- Filing charges of harassment or discrimination in the workplace,
- Complaining about withheld wages or overtime,
- Taking Family Medical Leave, or
- A particular race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual identity/orientation, a veteran, or member of another protected class.
Some of these laws can vary across California depending on the city. For example, in San Francisco, it’s also illegal for employers to discriminate based on a worker’s height and weight.
If you think you’ve been fired illegally, it’s essential that you consult with a lawyer. An attorney familiar with state and local laws can assess your case and determine if you’ve lost your job under circumstances that were illegal.
Then, they can help you collect the evidence necessary to bring a case against your employer and get the legal recourse you deserve.
A successful suit can bring you compensatory damages that provide restitution for lost wages, benefits, or emotional distress from your firing, as well as payment of court fees. In some cases, courts may also assign punitive damages to a company in the case when the impact of their violation is especially egregious.
4. Sexual Harassment
According to a 2019 study, Californians of either gender report experiencing at least 5% more incidents of workplace sexual harassment than the national average.
But in the post-MeToo era, more and more survivors of sexual misconduct are standing up and taking action to hold their perpetrators legally accountable — as well as companies who turned a blind eye to wrongdoing on their watch.
Legally, sexual harassment is considered a form of employment discrimination. Under California law, harassment on the basis of sex includes mistreatment that targets an individual because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or transgender status.
Harassment is generally defined as any act of unwanted sexual conduct or behavior perpetrated in the workplace that creates a hostile environment for a worker. This can look like:
- Sexually oriented gestures, noises, remarks or comments about a person’s sexuality or sexual experience,
- Someone displaying sexually suggestive objects, pictures, cartoons, graffiti, reading materials or other materials that are sexually demeaning or pornographic in the workplace, or “giving” someone such items,
- Unwanted physical advances, such as touching, back rubs, pats on the butt, poking, pinching, kissing, hugging, grabbing, or “accidental” brushes against your chest or other parts of your body,
- Rape, sexual battery, molestation or attempts to commit these assaults,
- Unwanted verbal advances or sexual propositions,
- A threat to reduce your hours, benefits, rate of pay, or otherwise hurt your conditions of employment if you don’t comply with a sexual request, or
- Loss of employment, benefits or other adverse impacts after complaining about harassment.
However, inappropriate behavior doesn’t have to be explicitly sexual for it to be considered illegal harassment. You also don’t have to be the direct object of the harassment to take action under the law.
If misconduct in your workplace — even if it’s directed at your coworker(s) — is so pervasive and offensive that it creates a hostile work environment for others, then there’s grounds for a complaint of sexual harassment.
Under California law, your employer is required to do all they reasonably can to protect you from sex-based harassment in the workplace.
If your company fails in this responsibility, you can seek restitution from them — as well as your harasser — in civil court. Successful cases can bring survivors compensatory damages as recovery for the violation of their rights.
Sexual harassment claims can be complicated, time-consuming, and stressful for survivors. But you don’t have to fight this battle alone.
If you have experience workplace sexual harassment in Silicon Valley Seek out the support of an employment attorney who can help you navigate the legal and administrative hurdles involved in pursuing a sexual harassment claim.
An experienced lawyer can evaluate your case, make sure you avoid the common mistakes that hamper these claims, and advocate on your behalf in court.
5. Whistleblower Retaliation
Whistleblowing happens when an employee reports (“blows the whistle” on) an employer’s illegal or inappropriate actions. These inappropriate actions can include:
- Violation of a state or federal law,
- Noncompliance with a local, state, or federal rule or regulation, or
- Unsafe working conditions or practices that pose risks to employee health and safety.
California law protects individuals who take a stand against companies that break the law or abuse their authority in this way.
It’s against state law for employers to take adverse actions against an employee for reporting unlawful behavior or refusing to take part in activity that’s illegal. Employers who punish employees for upholding the law in this way are committing illegal retaliation.
The most obvious form of retaliation for whistleblowing is being fired. But retaliation can also take more subtle forms, all of which are equally unlawful.
Even if a whistleblower doesn’t lose their job, their employer could still punish them by demotion, by passing them over for a promotion, through harassment, or withholding resources or professional development opportunities.
If you’ve experienced some of this behavior in response to a report or complaint you made about an employer’s wrongdoing, it’s a good idea to talk to an employment attorney about your options for legal recourse.
Bringing a case of wrongful termination or other lawsuit for illegal retaliation can win employees recovery in the form of lost wages, reinstated benefits, and/or damages for emotional distress.
Think there’s something suspicious going on in your workplace and are considering filing a report? It’s smart to consult with a lawyer before you act.
An experienced attorney familiar with California law can take a look at the situation, advise you on your options, and help you understand the protections available if you face backlash for your actions.
How to Find a Silicon Valley Employment Lawyer
California’s labor laws offer some of the strongest protections for employees in the country. But for the most accurate and up-to-date insight into legal disputes in the workplace, it’s important to seek out a law firm that specializes in employment law.
Many law firms in Silicon Valley will practice employment law, but it’s not their specific area of expertise.
The attorneys at Ottinger Employment Lawyers have over 20 years of experience in navigating California employment law.
We’ve advised individuals on any and all types of disputes that can happen in the workplace, from corporate discrimination lawsuits to commission disputes to wage theft. For any industry and any issue, we’re here to fight on your behalf for the justice you deserve.
Contact our office today to speak to a member of our team and learn how we can help you with your case.