Even When You’re Right, You May Not Be Right

We live in times that can be very difficult for business owners and managers.

Nearly every day, new court cases and precedents that threaten to impact your organization. Interpreting these in view of your business or non-profit can be difficult.

Scales_JusticeI usually suggest a conservative philosophy. I’m not talking “conservative” as in red states or blue states. I’m talking about conservative as in not leaping before you look, and then looking again! That’s especially true when it comes to legal action. In most cases, taking legal action should be your last resort.

Many people don’t like the idea of settlements, and that includes a number of attorneys. And while every case is different, I recommend you keep something in mind: going to court can be like flipping a coin. You may feel certain of your position. You may believe that it will be easy to overpower your opponent with your organization’s resources. But in the area of business law, and especially when it comes to employer-employee relations, don’t count on anything as being certain.

Even if someone says your case is a certainty, a winning verdict is never guaranteed. The court system has countless rules and many are vague or subject to multiple interpretations. Then there is the issue of sympathy. Your opponent may just look “nicer” to jurors. Cases have been won and lost on less.

I have found that judgments are often less about fairness, case validity or even the law and often more about people. Judgments may turn on a charismatic lawyer or the perspective of a judge or juror. Many cases come down to who has the sharpest, most convincing attorney and who has better rapport with the judge or jury. All the parties involved are people and predicting how they will act is a chancy game.

To me, the lesson for office managers is that you are almost always better served by avoiding court in the first place. I realize that goes against the better judgment of many—and in many individual cases I might agree—but overall the conservative approach of avoid court is usually the best strategy.

A strategy that goes hand in hand with this is to avoid getting into a legal trap in the first place. If you are confronted with a lawsuit, negotiation is nearly always better than rolling the dice in court. I strongly recommend that you have systems and experts in place to protect yourself. If you do find yourself in a legal issue, your first priority should be using HR experts and labor attorneys, not trial lawyers.

I once dealt with an organization facing a serious personnel issue, including a possible lawsuit. The settlement could have reached six figures. As in most such cases, there was also the possibility of regulatory action—and fines—by federal agencies. Instead, we worked with the employee to structure a separation that included $30,000 in payments to help retrain him for starting another career. Yes, that was $30,000 the organization had to pay, but that was much less than other possibilities.

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