for, | October 29, 2021

I Sued My Employer and Won, but Things Didn’t Turn Out Like I’d Hoped

How do I get back to where I was?

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Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt,

I used to work for a large financial firm as a financial adviser. The pay was amazing, and I enjoyed the work. Hours weren’t the greatest, and that led to the circumstances that involved me leaving. A new mandate rolled around that we had to work on two Saturdays a month for about three hours each. I am an observant Orthodox Jew, and this is on Shabbos, so that was a non-starter for me. I made a complaint through HR and was informed that as long as I kept my hours up and documented them, things would be fine.

Things were not fine. Suddenly, I was disinvited to many company functions, kept in the dark about training sessions, and always sent to the bottom of the priority list for maintenance or any sort of information services. A friend in HR finally leaked something to me that indicated a couple of the senior people called me a slur, were upset about me not being a team player in the Saturday thing and copies of several documents detailing plans to “ease him out.” I handed in my notice and filed suit against them. On my lawyer’s advice, I picked up a temp job at a bank in a much lower-paying function and with essentially no responsibility or independent judgment involved.

Recently, my attorney got a contact offering a settlement, which basically amounts to a full capitulation: lots of cash, a formal apology, firing the two people most directly involved in my mistreatment, and an internal review of their procedures. Now with that light at the end of the tunnel, I’m thinking my current employment situation. Going back to the firm I just sued is an obvious non-option, but there are plenty of others. But I’m not sure how to handle interviews. I’ll have been away for nearly two years, working a much worse-paying job, and that’s certain to come up. And if they ask why or do a background check, I’m sure “I sued my last employer” is going to look terrible. How do I interview in this situation and get back to where I was?

—Jumping Back In

Dear Jumping Back In,

I think you have to assume that any potential employer could find out about the lawsuit, and just be honest about what happened if it comes up. Your story doesn’t make you look bad; it makes your former employers look anti-Semitic. It’s possible that your lawsuit will make some potential employers nervous, but I don’t think you want to be in a position where you’re working for someone who doesn’t understand why you’d object to being treated the way you were, and isn’t sympathetic. Consider it a screening mechanism of sorts.

You should also consult your employment lawyer again. He or she should be able to give you a sense of what a potential employer is entitled to know about the situation, and some language about how to frame it in interviews if or when it comes up. It’s possible that it won’t, since you were working during that time, albeit for less money. But you should be prepared to talk about it, if it does.

Dear Pay Dirt,
When my great-grandmother died, she left money for the education of my daughter and my brother’s daughter. My sister-in-law and I both suffered years of infertility and miscarriages, so it was expected our girls would be it. The money was evenly split between the girls and control given over to my childless aunt until the girls turn 21. Then my brother had an affair when his daughter was 9. His wife left him. He married his affair partner before the divorce went through and had two children with her. No one in the family approved of this or particularly likes the new wife, but we try to be neutral to keep the peace. My daughter got into an accelerated program, got a scholarship, and is going to graduate at 21 with her master’s. She hasn’t touched the money my great-grandmother left her.

My new sister-in-law has stated that her kids deserve an equal share of the funds now. That went over like a building collapse. My former sister-in-law now refuses to even talk to my brother. My brother, rather than control his wife’s greed, has been putting the emotional screws to our aunt. He can’t legally do anything, but emotional manipulation is easy.

My daughter got access to her funds last month and keeps asking me if it is OK to consider giving it away to her cousins. I really want to tell my daughter to donate the money before giving into the manipulations of this bitch and my brother, the spineless. The only thing holding my tongue is our parents’ misery. They want everyone to get along and be happy but are basically getting their grandchildren pitted against each other. My niece refused to talk to them because she wanted them to condemn my brother and his wife. I had to beg my ex-sister-in-law to just maintain small talk. Neither my parents nor my aunt are in the best health (and their estates are not going to last long). This family drama is taking a huge toll. What do I do?

—Money on the Line

Dear Money on the Line,

Since the money was originally earmarked for your daughter, she has a right to keep it. She also has a right to decide for herself what to do with it. So if she wants to give the money to her cousins, you shouldn’t stand in her way. Instead, be grateful that your daughter is a generous person who values the family peace so much that she wants to remedy this situation herself.

Your sister-in-law is absolutely being unreasonable, and your brother shouldn’t be enabling it, but consider how this rift affects their children, who should not be punished for their parents’ selfishness. Retaliating against your sister-in-law and brother would potentially hurt them as well, and I’m sure you don’t want that, whatever you think of your sister-in-law. So let your daughter decide what to do with her money and support her, however she chooses to act.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I’m a single mother of two children, one of whom is only with us for the summers. My older daughter’s father is deceased, and she receives the minimum Social Security survivor’s benefit through my bank account. She and I have lived with my boyfriend for over three years, and I have been dating him for over four years. During that time, I have held a part-time, work-from-home job with a high-enough hourly rate to pay most of my bills, with the exception of student loans, housing, and car payments. The student loans had been in deferral and/or income-based repayments of $0. My boyfriend has never asked for rent and bought a car for me to drive. I filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy that completed in January 2020, but my lawyer refused to even try to get my loans discharged. I owe over $150,000 in total and have an MBA to show for it.

I left our family business in 2016 and have been trying since then to get another full-time professional job. However, each month that passes makes me less employable. Recently, my part-time job dried up, and I had to go on unemployment, which is barely enough for basics, much less saving or paying debts. It feels very unfair of me to use my daughter’s social security money to pay my bills. On the other hand, it also seems unfair to ask my boyfriend to pick up my financial slack when he is clearly not interested in changing our current arrangement.

I have tried to find other work but am either overqualified or disqualified because of my nonlinear career history. Friends have advised me to “think of what’s best for your kids,” which I interpret as “stay with the guy as long as he lets you hang around,” but I don’t feel like that’s a healthy basis for a relationship. The big question for me is: Should I stay or should I go? He doesn’t want to get married and won’t discuss money with me, which makes me very uncomfortable and anxious. I could move in with friends and try to rebuild my life, but the fallout from that would be detrimental for my kids, and there is no guarantee that a move would improve my situation. I don’t know what to do, but at some point doing nothing will no longer be an option.

—Millennial MBA Failure

Dear Millennial,

This isn’t really a question about your finances. You don’t actually express any disappointment with your relationship, but if you’re considering leaving, then it’s clear that you’re not happy. You need to separate the issue of whether your relationship is working from your financial situation. If you want to leave and are only staying because he’s covering some of your bills, that’s not fair to him, and staying because you don’t want to disrupt your kids’ lives isn’t really a good excuse for using him for his money. I’m sympathetic to your unemployment situation, which sounds frustrating and stressful, but your boyfriend also deserves to be with someone who’s not on the fence about the relationship.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I grew up in a financially comfortable family that, over time, has become very wealthy. My parents were not ostentatious or excessive with our spending growing up, but I attended college and graduate school loan-free and received significant help purchasing my first home. They are planning to pay for my children’s college education as well, and have been very generous with expenses like summer camp. I’m very grateful and make sure my children know that we are extremely fortunate.

My husband grew up in a completely different situation. His parents had a bit of a religious fundamentalist/survivalist mentality and he grew up avoiding creditors and taxes, watching his parents take odd jobs when absolutely necessary, and squirreling cash in hidden places in the house. He is, understandably, sensitive about being perceived as having little money, and takes a lot of pleasure in our ability to afford things now. He also works in an extremely low-earning job that he is very passionate about and feels deeply that it is what he is meant to do with his life. I work full-time in a job that I like fine, but have mostly because it provides our family’s health insurance.

The trouble, as you might see coming, is that he is very content to let my parents subsidize our life in as many ways as possible, and I’m just not. Part of this is practical—they are getting older, and I don’t want to assume an inheritance that could be depleted by end-of-life care needs. And a good part of it is emotional: I want to be grateful for what is offered but not have to ask for more. I’m thrilled they pay for summer camp, but I have no desire to go to them and ask for money to get our house painted or take a nice vacation. When we’ve tried to talk about this, my husband says I’m being silly because we are financially better off than most of our friends. This is true—but it’s because I don’t have college debt and my parents helped buy our house! Is my point of view reasonable, or am I worrying about a problem that we don’t have?

—Too Lucky?

Dear Too Lucky,

I think it’s always reasonable for adults to want to be financially independent, and that includes not having to ask your parents for money. It sounds like you’re already OK with your parents paying for the kids’ summer camp, and that’s not the sort of thing that’s going to deplete their savings, but your husband needs to understand why it makes you uncomfortable to ask them for more. He’s not entitled to their money, and it puts you in the awkward position of being made to feel dependent on your parents.

It’s a little unclear from your letter whether “we are financially better off” refers to your means or your parents’, but if it’s you, consider that there are other ways for you to have the things you want—the vacation, the house painted—and your husband is responsible for some of those things, too. It’s nice that he loves his job, but it’s a choice he made, and there are financial outcomes associated with it. If having nicer things is important to him, he should find ways to pitch in more himself. The onus shouldn’t be on your parents to deliver the lifestyle he wants.


Classic Prudie

Six years ago I broke up with my fiancé because I felt like we were no longer happy together and he never made time for me with a demanding job. I was confident in the decision, and while he was incredibly upset, he assented to the breakup. Now, at age 40, and after dating numerous other men, I realize that this breakup was a mistake. He made me much happier than any other partner has since, and I just didn’t realize a good thing when I had it. We don’t really speak much anymore, but I want to make contact to see if we could rekindle what we had. I’m hopeful I could persuade him that I made a mistake and he was right all along, but that may be unrealistic. Am I making a mistake trying this?