The New York Times recently reported on a massive class action case against Sterling Jewelers, the parent company of among others Jared and Kay Jewelers. The case involves allegations of unequal pay, and includes allegations of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation by 69,000 current and former employees of the company.
The claims are proceeding through arbitration as a result of a mandatory "Resolve" process that the company requires all employees to participate in. Sterling, like many large companies, has for several years required its employees to sign employment agreements that force them to engage in a multi-step dispute resolution process - rather than file a lawsuit in court. These agreements are offensively one-sided and unfair to employees, but they are also legally permitted in most cases. The process ultimately ends with an arbitration between the employee and the company, and most significantly removes the possibility of the employee (or in this case employees) getting a chance to present their case to a jury in court.
The "Anonymous" Hotline
One of the major allegations in the case against Sterling is that employees were retaliated against after calling in complaints of unequal pay, sexual harassment and discrimination to the company's anonymous "TIPS" hotline. This is not surprising.
Many large companies have anonymous hotlines that employees can use when they have complaints about workplace conduct. In theory, and in practice with some companies, this is a good thing. The hotline can serve as a way for employees to make generalized complaints about things that are going on without having to worry about retaliation. This is good - in theory.
In practice, hotlines can be problematic for a couple of reasons. First, by making an anonymous complaint - verbally - an employee is not necessarily buying herself any protection from further discrimination or retaliation. We often urge employees who contact us to put any complaints about illegal conduct in writing, and to present those written complaints to the appropriate person (whether in HR or a supervisor) per the company handbook. By doing this the employee is ensuring that there is a written record of the complaint; and if the employee is later fired she can refer back to that complaint as potentially being the catalyst for the firing. This can help support a discrimination or retaliation complaint.
Hotlines can also be problematic because they are often not actually anonymous. As alleged in the Sterling case, companies can often determine who made the complaint, and this information can then get leaked back to the person who was being complained about. This can lead to problems including retaliation against the employee. But since the employee did not make a written complaint, there may not be adequate proof to establish that the reason for the retaliation was the complaint.
The bottom line is that as an employee you are walking a fine line between complying with company policy and protecting yourself from harassment or discrimination. Generally, however, if you have the right and ability to make a written complaint, doing so will protect you as much as possible.
Of course, if you have other questions please feel free to contact us today, or for a quick case evaluation complete our confidential employment questionnaire.