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New grad gets railroaded out of first job

In the May 10, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a new grad becomes the fall guy for HR.

Question

I am a new college graduate (male), with only three months’ work experience. This is (was) my very first job. I am working through a temp agency that has me on its payroll. I’ve been given no training. It’s not clear who is actually my boss, though several managers give me work. I put all my heart and my enthusiasm into it. I tried to reach out for help and advice to my temp agency liaison, without any of my calls being returned.

cut-it-outThe big problem is I started to be sexually harassed by a woman co-worker. (I am gay.) This became very uncomfortable. When I finally reached my temp agency, they told me to talk to the woman and tell her (nicely) to take it easy. When I spoke with her, she seemed okay, but then she sent me a very disturbing passive-aggressive e-mail. I forwarded that to my agency and to my on-site manager.

On a Friday, both of us were called in to HR, and HR gave me the option to leave or to stay. I chose to leave as I was really uncomfortable working there anymore. We said our good-byes and I left. Nobody at my agency would return my calls. On Monday, the agency left me a voicemail stating that because of the unprofessional way I behaved and because I resigned without two weeks’ notice, they cannot represent me anymore.

If I feel conflicted about my work environment, unsafe I might say, how can I get back to work there? Shouldn’t my temp agency at least listen to my version of the story? Thank you.

Nick’s Reply

I’m sorry you had such a lousy first-job experience. I think you were railroaded out of your job by the HR department because you complained, and your agency has dumped you because they don’t want to buck their client. Regardless of who was at fault, the process for handling your complaint is clearly faulty.

While you were justified to complain, some companies just don’t like dealing with difficult situations like this. Their “solution” is to get rid of the employee who complains. That’s wrong. They should have initiated a review of what happened, and no matter who was at fault, an ultimatum is not the appropriate solution. At the very least they should have documented what happened and communicated with you in writing. Since they didn’t, they may have a legal problem.

My guess is that because you’re new to work, they figured they could intimidate you out of your job. They succeeded. Don’t feel bad – you’re still learning what your rights are at work.

Most important, what you’ve learned is that this employer and this agency have no integrity. They’re not worth working for. They’re not fair. They took the easy way out of this difficult situation.

I don’t blame you for opting to leave, but I believe you may have a legal case if you choose to pursue it. I’d start by talking with your state’s department of labor. Explain what happened, and ask for their advice about your options. It makes no sense that, after HR pushed you to leave, they consider this a case of resignation without notice!

Or, talk with an attorney who specializes in employment discrimination. I’m not a lawyer and I do not give legal advice. Some lawyers will give you an initial consultation at no charge – check that up front before you meet with one. Just make sure it’s an employment law specialist. Getting legal advice does not mean you’re going to sue – it’s a way to find out what your legal options are. Sometimes the solution is for the lawyer to send a nastygram to the employer — and a settlement is made. Sometimes it gets more complicated. Find out from the lawyer how this can be handled.

It really angers me when an employee – especially someone just starting out – is treated this way by an employer (not to mention the other employee). You must decide whether to move on or to get legal advice.

To answer your specific questions:

  • If you feel conflicted or unsafe in a work environment, stay away from it. Why would you want to go back to work there?
  • Yes, your agency should listen to your story. What they did was wrong.

If you believe you did nothing wrong, then you should decide whether you want to work with people who are doing something wrong. I’m not sure what you think would be different if your job were reinstated — or why you’d want to work with people like this. My advice is, don’t. Find an employer or an agency with integrity. And decide whether to take legal action. This may be helpful: New Grads: How to get in the door without experience.

I wish you the best. There are lots of good employers out there. It’s important to look more carefully at a company before you join up. See How can I find the truth about a company? and Get the manager’s resume before you interview for the job.

There are two big issues in this week’s Q&A — the special challenges new grads face at their first jobs, and discrimination. What did you experience as a new grad at your first job? Have you faced blatant discrimination like this employee did? What advice would you offer?

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31 Comments
  1. I would definitely talk to a lawyer, but be aware that often an attorney will have a threshold settlement amount below which they’re unwilling to take the case.

    You may at least get some free advice if they decide that the agency or company isn’t worth their trouble, BUT it’s also possible they’ll be able to get a token thousand dollars for you.

    But at a minimum, set up a new gmail account and post a detail-free (no gender or location, etc, so untraceable) review (to glassdoor, monster, etc) of both the agency and the company in which you describe how they threw you under the bus, and warn others not to work there.

    In 35 years of work I’ve only done this once & I have no idea if it did any good, but it’s very satisfying. I heard through the grapevine that it almost gave a former supervisor a stroke. Very satisfying indeed.

  2. I’m just asking, but “old advice” was to chalk it up to bad experience unless you were willing to run it through all the way to the end because, depending on the size of the town/job pool, you would be marked as being trouble and would have a heck of a time getting a job anywhere, ever again.
    Is that no longer an issue? The negatives of pursuing legal action weren’t covered in Nick’s answer.

  3. I have to agree with @Doug – there is a significant downside to a legal action, especially a Title IX action, which involves the feds, specifically EEOC. If his industry is small, he may be flagged and blacklisted.

    He did not give details of the sexual harassment (not that it matters,) but while it may be deemed actionable, a judgement may not be as lucrative as others make out depending on the actual facts. The employee involved may end up being terminated and/or the company may be sanctioned meaning they have to institute diversity training for all, etc. But a large cash award is not necessarily a slam dunk.

    OR, the poster can take Nick’s advice, move on, and even consider NOT including this company in his job history and start fresh.

    As to the gmail account, good advice, except to make sure you give no clue as to your real identity, namely fake but real-sounding names, and be vague as to specifics of the incident, else they backdoor it to him anyway.

    My bigger question would be why he is seeking employment through temp agencies to begin with.

  4. @doug Johnson’s advice is spot-on. Although from what the writer wrote he has IMHO a solid case, there’s the downside of gaining a rep as someone “suit-happy”. Having been a party to a class-action suit against a former employer, even though I thought we had a rock-solid case, it was dismissed.

    Please keep in mind that the following is MHO, not legal advice per se (I am not a lawyer).

    That brings up a broader point, though. If you find yourself in such a situation, keep a log. And by that I mean not just something written, but something wherein you email something to yourself (on the company server) not copying anyone else. Then, hit send, and print out the email. Thus you have a date/time-stamped piece of information, on THEIR server which they are (I believe) required to preserve, and take the printout home. (And, if things get disappeared off their server, you have printed evidence otherwise, and that doesn’t put them in a good light!)

    ANYTHING pertinent needs to go into that log. If you send a polite note to the harasser, print that. Notes from them, of course, get printed.

    This way you have a history file, detailed, date/time, in YOUR possession should you decide to seek legal advice.

  5. We often come out of college idealistic and naive about the fairness and equality in the work place. This is a perfect example of the need to be proactive and assertive for oneself. There is no trophy for showing up – it’s dog eat dog. I think the LW learned a good lesson about “the real world” – his experience has been my experience in many ways but I eventually learned to set boundaries. No one ever fights for the wronged employee unless the employee leads the charge. In my experience, no employer wants a problem and they’ll sweep it under the rug as quickly as they can. That’s why we gotta keep our resumes polished and keep looking for a better job. Lots of unemployed or under employed people out there and employers see us as easy to replace in a lot of companies.

  6. I rarely disagree with Nick but I do on this one.

    I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

    When you are an OFWG and have a 40+ work history you can threaten a lawsuit and get compensation and/or relief. BTDT, never went to court. I had an ex-employer who terminated me for ‘failure to reach goals’ – except they hadn’t reviewed me and set goals for three years. Im sailing the settlement each summer.

    When you are young and starting out, you can’t. Its that simple. You risk being put into the ‘troublemaker’ bin, which can really hurt you over the next decade.

    That being said, don’t be afraid to name the company either directly or through a surrogate and state the factual reason for leaving. You can put this on LinkedIn, too.

    OFWG – old fat white guy, for those wondering.

  7. I’ve learned that an agency that sends a temp or contractor to an employer will always side with the employer because the employer is actually the agency’s paying customer and the worker is easily replaced. Once on an assignment as a long-term temp I experienced a disagreement with another temp that turned threatening. I told the agency I could not return to the job site due to feeling unsafe. Despite my excellent past performances, this agency dropped me from future jobs and we never worked together again. Luckily I live in a large market with many employment agencies for temp workers. I also was seasoned enough at that point to recognize the lack of integrity and support from the agency and the employer.

  8. Makes a case for wearable cameras at work too. (Not that I really want such a thing.)

  9. I think the person would have a difficult time with any legal action because of the client-temp agency relationship……which is an intended effect of said relationship.

    You see this sometimes when a temp worker is injured on the job and files for worker’s comp. The client isn’t the employer and says the temp agency has to pay. The temp agency says they don’t control the workplace so the client is responsible.

    Someone *is* liable for the claim, but it’s so much effort and paperwork and time that it makes it extremely hard for the injured person to get timely resolution.

    And the client and temp agency like it that way. Every compensation dollar that doesn’t get paid out keeps their premiums down.

    I’d bet donuts to dollars this situation would be similar. The harassment occurred not at the temp agency’s site but at the client’s. But the person is a temp agency employee, not the client’s employee. The person would most likely be considered a third party in relation to the client for sexual harassment claims.

    Yes, legal recourse could be sought but the grey area created by the employment set up would make it messy…..and the client and temp agency probably want it that way. They know that most people will just give up.

  10. Oh, those wonderful temp agencies!

    When I was 22 or 23 I worked in a drug discovery lab through a temp agency. They loved me (called the agency to rave about me, even) until one day I noticed that the wrong sequence/batch of compounds came in one day. It should not have been a big deal, as I identified the problem before it screwed up their database of compounds…

    Anyways, because my supervisor was out sick, I had the research manager order the correct one for the next morning while I just spent a half day tidying up the lab.

    At the end of the week, the supervisor who ordered the wrong batch (not the manager who solved the problem) told me that the temp agency wanted to meet me downstairs. I was given my last check and fired on the spot at 5pm that Friday in the lobby of the lab. I think I just made my supervisor look bad to her lab manager, honestly.

    So many temp stories..And then there was the assignment where the home-based consultant didn’t allow us to take lunch breaks…hahahaha. Love temp agencies.

  11. I’m not a lawyer either but I think Nick’s advice is good. I looked at the EEOC Web site here: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/enforcement_guidance.cfm, and both the temp agency and its client are probably liable, maybe the reason the temp agency didn’t return his calls. Bringing a complaint could possibly hurt him in the job market, but if he can involve a relevant nonprofit and has the gay community behind him, it’s less likely. The HR person probably stupidly thought s/he avoided liability by giving him the choice to remain.

  12. I’m with Doug, but because this is the person’s 1st job right out of college & I don’t think it a good idea to start out one’s working life with a lawsuit under your belt. Win or lose. If this was an experienced person with a solid track record under the belt, then I’d lean Nick’s way. Talk with an attorney.

    As far as the agency goes, one has to assume they are a body shop. Yes agencies don’t want to lose clients…but believe it or not, agencies also “fire” clients. And one good reason is mistreating their (the agencies) employees. You can run a profitable business with integrity.

    I used to work as an agency recruiter and contract work was the primary business model/bread and butter. For that to work, you need to be able to send dependable, productive people to clients. They are an asset and you watch their back. They are your eyes and ears inside the client & I don’t mean proprietary information. I mean cultural information. When the person tried to contact her rep, and why, that was the red flag to get involved and find out what was going on, & either sat in on the meeting or simply pull your person out before it got ugly.

    This may be a bad analogy. But once I complained about some soggy french fries I bought at a small restaurant. Not only were they replaced…but the owner came over and thanked me for bringing it to his attention. So he wouldn’t go around giving potential return business a bad impression.

    If that agency got involved from the get-go, did their own review, they’d have confirmed their person was being harassed, or not. If the former, they should have been the one to cue HR. Because they have someone in their company who is a potential lawsuit or even more simply is contributing to a bad working environment. They then are positioned to effect corrective action.
    If the agency finds that their person isn’t credible they can yank them out of there before it escalates screwing up their relationship.

    Doing nothing..is doing something. Yeah maybe life will go on for both the agency and their client, but an agency that does the right thing, working with the right people will gain respect.

    If not…fire the client

  13. Post a review based on your experience on yelp for the temp agency (if there is one). It can get the info out there w/o a need to expose your name.

  14. Many college students today have been oversensitized to “microaggressions” that are laughed at in the real world. I have no idea how serious was your incident, and am not judging. I do question if you have enough experience to judge the seriousness of the incident since you are new to the workplace. Discuss your issue with some people who have been working for a decade and get their perspective.

    As many have said, there can be serious downsides to a lawsuit. If you lose your case you will generally be thought of as a troublemaker for frivolous lawsuits.

    You most likely were not an employee; you were an independent contractor. This generally gives you less rights and a much more difficult path to getting legal satisfaction. After you have talked to some older workforce participants, talk with a specialized attorney if appropriate.

    And chalk one up to experience.

  15. I feel the bigger problem is with the temp agency. I would send them a polite but firm letter saying that you agree not to take legal action against them as long as they do not disparage you in any way.

  16. This new grad needs to come to understand that the dynamics of dirty pool are not found only at the hourly, non-exempt level.

    This type of situation can develop even when he is a Manager, Director or even a Vice President. I’ve heard similar stories from all levels of professionals.

    He needs to get over his shock and come to know there are even more surprises out there, waiting for him.

    The sooner he gets his guard up, the better off he will be.

    Paul

  17. What I neglected to mention is that when these types of events occur again, in the future, he won’t have an employment agency to run to.

    He’ll have to figure out how to get past these human tiger pits on his own or risk losing his job or positioning in his company.

    It’s been my experience that most executives will ‘suck it up’, weather the storm and at some point, get promoted past the problem.

    So one of the lessons here for this new grad is that not only is he going to be on his own at some point, there will be no resource from which he can extract a solution and will have to learn to live by his wits in order to save his professional positioning.

    If he is like most people, he will need to get his knuckles bruised a few more times so he can learn to formulate resolution strategies for when these events show themselves.

    It helps if you see these things coming….and recognize them for what they are.

    Paul

  18. Get it in writing; document everything.

    What is blatantly and inarguably true is that the Agency’s customer is the client. You are the person performing the work, the one enabling the agency to make tons of money off your work.

    The agency tricked you into quitting; they know it becomes harder for you to get unemployment when you ‘quit’. It appears their agreement is written to disadvantage you as well. Do not be afraid to tell your story with details, dates and documentation. It should become obvious that you had a legitimate complaint, you notified your employer, attempted to resolve it..and that your employer tricked you into ‘quitting’.

  19. The grad that got the heave ho:

    was shown business 101.

    Agencies & other creature features:

    rarely if ever facilitate you.

    Sad to get a lesson in the moving of warm bodies

    As an old movie title parsed-:
    For A Few Dollars More.

  20. So what all this boils down to is the staus quo rules. Again.

  21. I agree with many, you should not sue the agency or employer. The economy is finally improving after so many miserable years–there will be more jobs, so spend your time and energy looking for the right one. The only people I have seen come out well in an employment lawsuit are either very wealthy and at the top, or in a union job. Others have had permanent, negative consequences for their career. We are a long way from anything like EEOC! Just talk to women over 50 who have been out of work for years on end.

    I went through something similar a couple times in the course of my (so far) 40 year working career, and cheesy companies and managers sometimes blame the victim. One guy who did something like that to me, was hired by another company where I later worked, and was sued by another big wheel there for harassment for a ton of money, so some of these jerks are made of teflon and their jerk friends keep hiring them no matter what. Just get away from them.

    I also agree that you should check with others who have worked ten years or more about how serious (or common) this situation was. Most people (except billionaire men) unfortunately experience some kind of inappropriate comments, harassment, etc. while at work. I have weathered many clueless coworkers, crude comments, etc., and it can be especially bad if you work with the public and are expected to endure anything they say or do. However, you can often find others at work who are reasonable, professional and fair and hang out with them and ignore the rest.

    Read between the lines at Glass Door, to see what a range of employees say about the employer before working somewhere including a temp agency. And reading and/or posting on Yelp might be an idea, too.

    Finally, get into the habit of managing your finances very carefully, have a goal to live on less than you make if possible, etc., so you can afford to walk away from a truly lousy work situation if needed and find a good one where people appreciate you.

    Sorry to share all this, new grad, but you will be ever so much better off with your eyes wide open!

  22. @Doug Johnson: “The negatives of pursuing legal action weren’t covered in Nick’s answer.”

    This is a personal choice. My attitude is, if you’re going to be afraid of the consequences of taking advantage of available remedies (as long as they’re legal), then you automatically lose. You will likely give in again and again under pressure and your life’s going to be miserable. I believe in weighing pros and cons, but in general my attitude is, bring it on, and deal with the consequences. Or you lose.

    @David Hunt: Keeping a log is crucial. Dates, times, names, actions, etc. Great advice.

    @Kathy: I’m with you. “No one ever fights for the wronged employee unless the employee leads the charge.”

    @ALL: The OP followed up after this was published. Here’s what he said happened:
    “Yesterday I was able to talk to my agency and we clarified some things – they didn’t quite get from my voicemails that my quitting was after I spoke with client’s HR. This was huge in my favor. I am still with them, but I’m also pursuing other opportunities. I will not go for legal advice, but I will keep in mind the route you suggested.”

    @Addie: “The HR person probably stupidly thought s/he avoided liability by giving him the choice to remain.”
    I think you nailed the problem. HR tends to seek the avenue of least risk, and this HR person probably thought s/he was being clever by letting the employee “choose.” Stupid.

    @Don: “I don’t think it a good idea to start out one’s working life with a lawsuit under your belt”
    I thought I was pretty clear that a lawsuit is not necessary or even likely. A good nastygram from a good lawyer often does the trick, and there’s no “record” to speak of.

    @Luci the cat”The agency tricked you into quitting”
    BINGO! And I agree that the employee should have insisted that HR put it all in writing, including the “offer” to quit. A good lawyer can make hay with this kind of documenation. However, I think HR would have declined to document what happened – though the HR rep might have gotten a message that the employee knows how to manage railroading…

  23. I am Dr. Jaideep Visave and I am new here. I dont know how to ask queries or questions on job applying.

    Can anyone pls help me.

    Thank.

  24. Sue the agency. The will settle.

  25. Mr. Bob Johnson….

    You must not know the employment agency business very well.

    These are not always mom and pop shops- they have attorneys on staff to handle all the many hassles that go on with the employment agency business.

    Settling creates a dangerous precedent and is not a good idea.

    Frankly, like with the Prizzi’s, employment agencies would rather sell their kids than give back money.

    Such bad advice should not be so lightly given.

    Paul

  26. I am sorry that the LW has experienced this, and in his first post-college job, no less. What his female colleague did was wrong. However, the other bad actor here was his temp. agency; a better agency would have placed him in another job (assuming there was one available) and would have raised the issue with the employer.

    I agree with Don et al.: suing them is probably not in his best interests for the reasons Don laid out. He’s at the beginning of his professional life, and the last thing he wants is to be labeled a trouble-maker.

    LW is employed by the temp. agency, not by the place where he goes to work. Technically, he is considered an independent contractor. So even if he did speak with an employment attorney, the issue becomes (after deciding whether he has a good case or not) who to sue. The hostile work environment was not created by his employer. But I do think the temp agency fell down by not helping him when he notified them of the problem. A good temp agency should have contacted the employer to them know that LW would not be returning to work there and why so employer can address the issue with female employee (a good CEO or a good HR manager would want to know about this kind of behavior so they can nip it in the bud before it becomes a bigger problem and causes the company monetary damages and a trashed reputation) AND place him in another job.

    Not all temp agencies are that bad (I lucked out when I temped, and not only did the job work out but the employer and I got to try eachother out. When a permanent job opened up, I was encouraged to apply for it and was hired, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t temped first), but the agency LW works for is more concerned about the employer than their employees, who, by the way, are making money for them!

    LW could talk to an employment attorney–many will give you a free consultation, and he might find it helpful and educational (he may learn what his rights are, or be shocked by just how few rights he has).

    But most important, LW should realize that this is the first of many jobs, and that over his working life he will encounter all kinds of employers and colleagues, and will likely work for and with other bad actors. Start looking for another job, sign on with other temp agencies, etc., and please don’t let your first experience color your views of the work environment. There are some great employers and people out there too.

  27. I’m with Doug, Kathy and Paul.

    This is his first job, and he just learned a very valuable lesson. Learn and move on, or forever be the victim IMO.

    There is nothing wrong with expressing discomfort if someone is discussing something not work realted, but you can also remove yourself from the area of conversation. There is not rule you have to chat with employees about anything other than work related topics.

    This young employee needs to realize the world is full of people who may say stupid/inappropriate things. At the end of the day, they are just words and he could simply distance himself or politely say, I don’t feel comfortable talking about those kinds of things at work. Then, he should start looking for a new job elsewhere if he is still not comfortable there.

    IMO, a temp agency is NOT the best way to start your career to begin with. You ARE less than a tool for that agency and you must be 100% focused on the job. They don’t care very much about you because you are a temp and easily replaced. The young employee was more at risk of damaging the agencies relationship with the employer.

    Once he met with HR, he should have said he was fine and gone back to work, sucked it up and after 6 months, started looking for permanent work.

    Chalk it up as a learning experience and move on IMO.

  28. “Sue the agency. The will settle.”

    He could follow Bobs suggestion and forget about ever using that agency/employer as a reference for any future jobs. Might still want to consider that.

    The young employee just learned a very valuable lesson worth more than he would most likely receive in court and should be better prepared for his future career. It’s not like he was going to be a temp for life anyway.

  29. Just a voice of experience here on my referenced case..

    “BINGO! And I agree that the employee should have insisted that HR put it all in writing, including the “offer” to quit. A good lawyer can make hay with this kind of documenation. However, I think HR would have declined to document what happened – though the HR rep might have gotten a message that the employee knows how to manage railroading…”

    When I left my last W2 job, the CEO was unable to produce the documentation referenced in my termination letter. I took a cell phone picture of myself and my HR rep, and emailed it to them with a statement…0951 on month/day/ year – HR, in the presence of CEO, is unable to provide me with copies of these documents on my request
    (list of documents)
    which I assert do not exist.

    I had no legal bills, and settled within 30 days.

    When the company TELLS you something verbal, YOU document it back to them for them to dispute ASAP. They have to deny saying it or affirm, as long as you keep it to facts, and not opinions.

  30. @VP Sales: LMAO. That’s excellent advice, which I’ve heard from good lawyers. YOU document THEIR behavior and send it back to them. No response counts as confirmation. And you’re right: Just the facts. Thanks for posting this.

  31. I know I’m late to the game here, but want to share what first went through my mind.

    I worked with a few employment agencies (some great, some very shady) before learning about the American Staffing Association. I was actually placed there as a temp through a recruiter.
    First, I would use the Job Seekers area of their website, americanstaffing.net, and find a new agency. I would put more trust in ones who are members of the association, as well as credentialed individuals within them. If you want to work within a specific industry, chances are you’ll find an agency specializing in exactly what you need and (in my experience) provide the best results.
    Next, see if your issue is addressed somewhere on the site, even if it’s something geared towards the agency instead of clients. If not, call ASA and just ask the available legal staff. It’s a fairly quick question and I’m sure they’ll know what you should do next, if anything, or where else you might find an answer.
    The number of people possibly affected by sloppy employment practices by just one employment agency is what makes this worthy of taking it just one step further with that quick and simple phone call.

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