In many workplaces, harassment on the shop floor is backed up by the threat of being written up or sent into the office. But if you’re prepared and know your rights, meeting with management doesn’t have to be terrifying.
In almost all cases when you are sent to the office, you have the right, commonly known as your Weingarten Right, to union representation (a steward) with you when you meet with management, and you should insist on this right.
Weingarten rights derive from the National Labor Relations Act, which covers most Teamsters in the private sector. Many public workers have similar protection, and many Teamster contracts also provide this protection or a stronger form of it.
When told to meet with management:
Immediately ask whether the meeting could result in disciplinary action (such as a warning letter, suspension, or discharge). If so, you have the right to have a steward present .
If the meeting is not an investigation that could lead to discipline (for example, they want to offer you a voluntary transfer, or some additional training, or to inform you of new company policies), you are not entitled to have a steward with you. But if the meeting ever changes to become about things you may have done wrong, or if the voluntary transfer looks like an involuntary punishment, immediately ask management to bring in a steward.
Push to have your steward or the steward of your choice present. Your rights here depend on your contract, past practice, and your determination. But don’t risk refusing a direct order.
If management refuses to allow a steward to be present, you must attend the meeting, but you do not have to answer any questions. You may reply to each question by saying, “I would like to cooperate with this investigation, but I must insist on my legal right to have a steward present.”
Expect your steward or union representative to provide an active and firm defense (see “The Steward as Active Defender” below).
Take notes. Writing notes will give you time to think. Write down the manager’s question, and write down what you will answer (before you say it). You will be less likely to react in a way that will hurt you! Even if the steward is also taking notes—and he or she should be—it’s a good idea to take your own.
The Steward As Active Defender
The steward isn’t there just as a witness. He or she is there to try to:
find out what management thinks you did wrong,
try to help you figure out what your best defense is, whether or not you actually did anything wrong,
and be your defender, if needed.
You and the steward have the right to meet privately before the meeting. You should do this. If you have an idea what the meeting will be about (something you may have done wrong, for example), tell the steward. He or she will be better prepared to defend you if not taken by surprise.
You and the steward should discuss how much you should say in your own defense.
Before you actually enter the office, ask the manager what the meeting is about. They are supposed to tell you. If they refuse, put this fact into your notes.
If something comes up that you weren’t prepared for, you or the steward may ask for the meeting to stop while you confer privately again.
Your Attitude and Participation
Your goal should be to get as much information as possible out of management — to find out what they are after and what information they have (or think they have). Ask questions about their questions. But management does have a right to require you to answer questions about your work and work performance.
Don’t guess! If questions relate to events that happened more than a day or two ago, it is perfectly reasonable for you not to remember details. Ask them to show you any documents that may help you remember what they are referring to.
Don’t offer more information than asked! If you are not sure what they are asking, tell them you don’t understand the question. Don’t answer until you really understand exactly what is being asked, or you may be providing information that may hurt you (or another employee).
If the situation involves a supervisor being disrespectful toward you, be sure to bring that up.
You will have to decide how much of a defense to give. It is best to meet privately with the steward before responding. Do not tell long stories — just the basic facts of what happened.
If management argues with your story, just respond with something like, “That’s the way it happened.” Don’t re-tell the story or add more details. You may contradict yourself and weaken your believability.
About witnesses: you may need to talk to them before management does. Hold off on telling management who your witnesses are until you are sure they will back you up.
If management has real evidence of wrong-doing, ask for a recess. The steward should ask the manager (privately) whether the penalty would be milder if you “cop a plea.” Ask the steward to find out from management how solid this promise is.
If You Are Disciplined...
Don’t take warning letters lightly. A warning letter can lead to harsher punishment later. If a warning letter is unjust or too severe, it is a good idea to file a grievance right away. If you are suspended or discharged, you must file a grievance, even if there is evidence that you did something wrong. The grievance review may uncover some technical error, or management may agree to reduce the penalty.
You or the steward should notify management, in writing or orally (check your contract for which is required), that: “The disciplinary action taken on (date) against (your name) was without just cause, and violates (articles) in the contract and company policies, and should be remedied by rescinding the disciplinary action, removing any related entries from the personnel record, and making (your name) whole in every way.” General wording is okay just to get the grievance on record.
To Insure Your Rights In the Future
Push to get contract language that will:
Guarantee that management will provide a steward for any meeting with them, even if it isn’t required by law.
Assure you the right to the steward of your choice, if he or she is at work that day.
Require management to give the union prior notice of any discipline they are contemplating. The steward can make an investigation ahead of time, and you and the steward will both be better prepared for the meeting.