Outrageous Disciplinary Actions?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about voicing opinions during a restructuring:

Several weeks ago a senior partner with my firm announced a restructuring for our department, and mentioned that it might be necessary to downsize 1 or 2 positions, and that eventually 2 more positions might also be replaced. In the aftermath of this announcement I was given a “verbal warning” to “keep my discussions with coworkers positive” rather than discussing potential job eliminations.

I was not told this was a verbal warning, and the person who gave it to me was not my manager, and was not my manager’s manager (she was another manager in the company). I was actually accused of being the cause of “poor morale” in our group due to comments made by me in private conversation with coworkers(that we could only account for 9 of 12 positions in the future).

Distressed by being blamed for poor morale, I sent an E-mail to a highly placed person in our company, explaining what I felt were the true causes of poor morale in the group (the mentioned possible layoffs and the details of the restructuring and how it was to affect our employment). I was subsequently given a “written warning” for sending the E-mail. Supposedly this “written warning” was for “negative customer service”, “unprofessional behavior”, and “poor performance”. The written warning also came from the same person, who is not my manager. I appealed the written warning, and it was downgraded (by my manager’s manager) to a second verbal warning. Nonetheless, I am quite concerned about my work environment. Are there any rights of free speech for public employees? Do I have any basis for constructive discharge?

Signed, Feeling Unfairly Punished

DearĀ Feeling Unfairly Punished:

I can imagine that you feel frustrated and angry over what is happening. You may wish to consult with an attorney about your legal options. However, it does not appear than any illegal actions have occurred. Your right to freedom of speech does not extend to the kind of situations you describe, nor does it appear you have been disciplined so harshly as to require you to quit and consider it a constructive discharge. There have been occasions when union representatives have claimed freedom of speech infringement, in their efforts to mobilize a group.

But generally freedom of speech refers to public issues, not to complaining about work. As difficult as it is to accept sometimes, the old adage is true: Your boss doesn’t own your attitude, but your paycheck rents your conversation and behavior at work. My hope for you is that you can find a way to put these things behind you. There will be a great deal of upset in the coming months, and it would be a good thing if you could be one of the strong, positive, forward thinking people who help the company weather the storm.Best wishes.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.