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Note: Long post ahead.

Context:

  • Rural southern Spain
  • Medium-sized public company (+500 people) without HR
  • Toxic workplace
  • My mother is in her late fifties
  • She has been in this company for 20 years working as a secretary
  • Her husband used to be the director of the company for 30 years until he stepped down last year
  • New management (hand-picked by the stakeholders, which basically is the political party of the region) has wreaked havoc chaos and fear via threats and layoffs (including those who started legal action against them)
  • Constant friction with the new management and my mother's husband (ex-director)

Story:

Today my mother told me that she has received an official warning letter from management (first ever received). The letter brings to her attention the fact that an undisclosed coworker has reported her for not doing her job. The source implies that my mother didn't mail one letter when she was supposed to do it as per her responsibilities. Yes, that's all the report says (in three pages).

This warning will penalize her with half a month without pay. Next warning(s) will penalize her with a full month without pay and may be reason enough for firing her.

This is a case of he-said-she-said as there are no witnesses involved, no proof of the mails that needed to be mailed, no proof of all the mails that my mother mailed (which were in the "mail-pile": around 5kg of mail, according to my mother) no report/communication stating "don't forget to mail the really-important-mail hidden behind the wardrobe", etc. Amusingly, nobody can even find the secret mail my mother was unable to send. Of course, according to my mother, she mailed everything there was to mail.

Moreover, there are no fixed hours for picking the mail pile and driving to the post office to mail it in her contract/responsibilities, but everybody knows that it happens at around 10am every two days. This doesn't prevent any of their coworkers from putting a mail in the mail pile right after it has been emptied and complaining that their mail was forgotten, which may have been what have happened (first time ever though).

The issue at hand is that somebody made an unreasonable complaint without proof/impact to management and they are in the process of punishing my mother. The person who made the complaint could report my mother again in the future, without providing any proof, making my mother work for free or having her fired without severance. Conveniently a win-win for the company in either case.

Handling it:

This is obviously very illegal but there's no easy choice here as:

  • Finding an applicable job for her in the region she lives (or even in the nearest city) is next to impossible given her age, work experience, lack of jobs, and possible political ties to the company
  • If she sues the company she will be left without a job anyways (or demoted to a redundant position and then laid-off, like some of her peers) if she can even afford a lawyer until an agreement is reached
  • Accepting the warning will be like admitting that she is guilty of what she didn't do, making her position weaker should she sue the company at a later date, on top of what it was mentioned in the previous section about future extortion
  • Even if she refuses to sign the warning and complains, the current director has already signed it, implying that the company recognizes that this was indeed insubordination

I have insisted her to go to a lawyer and refuse to sign the warning but I am unable to see a way out for her where she preserves her job.

It shall be noted that not signing the warning (until tomorrow) will also result in insubordination.

What puzzles me is the fact that the new management has been giving her more responsibilities and authority (to the point that only the director is above her) while still being officially a secretary. Certainly they could have tried setting her up for failure with the new responsibilities but my mother was able to adapt and prove her worth, and now they are trying a petty tactic.

Is there something else I am missing where no lawyers/suing is involved and she gets to keep her job without being extorted?

PS: Since the chaos started I advised her to document everything, especially communications via email, and it has saved her a couple of times but her evidence has also been dismissed by management when it was convenient for them. This time she didn't have proof of the thousands of mails she picked up and it is unreasonable to expect her to note each one of them just to (try) prevent being accused again of wrongdoing in the future.

Update to answer some of @obe questions:

Q: Who's "new management"?

A: "New management" is composed by the director of the company (which is basically a CEO who responds to the politicians from his party, who are above him) and his administration (hand-picked members of the political party). To this day, according to my mother, nobody outside this new administration really knows how many people are there.

Q: Who's above my mother and her boss?

A: Above my mother is the new director, and above him you can find the stakeholders/politicians.

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  • 5
    "I have insisted her to go to a lawyer and refuse to sign the warning but I am unable to see a way out for her where she preserves her job." This is the best advice you can give her. As for her job, as you have described it is not worth preserving. Best for her to speak to a lawyer and look for a new company to work for.
    – sf02
    Jun 10 at 18:34
  • 2
    @sf02 The mother is stuck between a rock and a hard place right now. The current job may be worth preserving just for the income alone. It's only slightly better being employed in a toxic environment than to be unemployed and job hunting.
    – zmike
    Jun 10 at 18:39
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    Just fyi you’ve given enough specific, identifiable information here that someone could figure out your mum’s identity with 60 minutes on the internet. (Southern Spain. Rural. Public company ~500 people. Press release last year of a director stepping down after 3 decades with the company. Quick surname search on LinkedIn for that company etc). If that’s not something you’re comfortable with, then edit out the details and raise a mod flag to delete the edit history.
    – Kaz
    Jun 10 at 18:52
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    @zmike The current job is eliminating her income for half a month assuming she signs the warning, more if she does not. Employment means nothing if she is not getting paid.
    – sf02
    Jun 10 at 18:53
  • 1
    Wait her husband was a director of the company for 30 years and she stayed as a secretary?
    – JMERICKS
    Jun 10 at 21:27
11

In the EU, if a company decides they want to get rid of you, they can get rid of you. However, in the EU you can make it very expensive for them.

So first step is going to a good employment lawyer. Docking half a months wages is soooooo illegal in the EU that they will be forced to pay in a heartbeat, and your lawyer will of course keep notes and later use it as evidence of "constructive dismissal". It's about the best thing that can happen to her, because it means a major payout later.

Other things will happen. She can report them to her employment lawyer who will advice her what the correct reaction is. And she will be laid off, at which point her lawyer will take them to court and make them pay.

Summary: She will lose this job. She MUST get a good employment lawyer. She MUST NOT quit herself unless her lawyer tells her to.

4
  • This is the sad but correct answer. She will lose the job anyway, so make them pay.
    – Chris
    Jun 11 at 17:35
  • While I agree that this would be the correct approach in a non-rural non-politically backed company, it is (unfortunately) not a wise choice if the ultimate goal is to retire in the area in less than a decade. Jun 12 at 22:04
  • Just to add a few more details to the legality issue regarding the wage dock: The thing is that in "normal insubordination" conditions, the employee is sent home without pay for the duration of the punishment; but here, due to the fact that my mother holds key responsibilities and authority, the company needs her presence almost daily. These key individuals are penalized just without the pay and it is apparently legal. Jun 12 at 22:05
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    @unreasonablereason: Who told you that it is legal to do that? The management, or an employment lawyer? If the former, why did you believe them?
    – Kevin
    Jun 13 at 19:03
4

Would bad publicity be a concern for the company?

Sending a formal warning with threats and pay deduction to a woman at her late fifties after 20 years at the job does not make sense, even if it were what actually happened, and does not look good for the company.

Doing so after assigning her additional responsibilities (which is indication that she has been a good and capable employee) makes even less sense.

You refer to the "new management" as a single entity, but is this a specific person, or several managers? Is there anyone above the person who authorized the letter? Maybe there is someone at top that is not aware of the situation, or is not seeing the big picture? And even if they do - maybe if they realize that if they pursue this direction there could be public/political fallback, they would take a step back?

What if, instead of signing the warning, your mother responds with a letter that describes the situation and context as she sees it? At this point it can be done without making any explicit threats. Just to convey the message that she has a case, and that she is able and probably willing to fight back.

I would probably explicitly mention that deducting pay in this situation is both immoral and illegal (if it is indeed illegal in Spain). Just to hint that it's unacceptable for her.

If the company follows up with more threats or attempts to fire her - she can inform them that she would pursue legal action, as well as go public with the case.

Obviously there's risk but like others pointed out - it sounds like a pretty bad place to stay in (and I'm sure it also has an emotional toll on her)...

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  • For sure bad publicity will be bad for them, especially because all of this chaos, layoffs and noise is smelling like the company will be sold/privatized. Unfortunately I don't think it is wise to go that route because the political party controls some of the major newspapers/TV channels of the region and she (and close family/friends) may gain a bad reputation, which is something you definitely don't want to have in rural zones. Jun 10 at 23:14
  • I updated the OP to include the hierarchy above my mother Jun 10 at 23:52
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    @unreasonablereason "I don't think it is wise to go that route because the political party controls some of the major newspapers/TV channels of the region" It's 2021. Social media rules. You're giving them too much power.
    – Jonast92
    Jun 11 at 14:03
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    Not paying for work done is most definitely illegal anywhere in the EU.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 11 at 16:05
  • 1
    Yeah, a political party decides to treat its workers like shit in 2021? Threaten to kick up a stink on Twitter.
    – nick012000
    Jun 11 at 18:26
1

First of all, sorry to hear about what your mother is suffering.

I have similar situation before. No matter what I did, how good I did. My supervisor already made decision to kick me out of the company, nothing I can do there. Finally, after I suffered for 2 years and tried out every solutions, my HR showed me the door.

But your mother's situation is worse, bad guys are from the board. Not simply from her supervisor(by the way, don't trust her supervisor, he/she is already completely compromised).

My suggestions are:

  1. If guys from the board want to kick her out, then she definitely be kicked out already, but why your mother still there? THERE MUST A REASON THEY ARE CARING ABOUT! Think about it what it is!!!

  2. Find a lawyer, this is best choice! Listen to your lawyer said, not only from the labor law, go direction about "Psychological impact".

  3. Your mother and you have to accept the truth that finally your mother can not stay in the company finally. So your mother has to prepare to fight! Not inside the company, but with your lawyer, and the point 1.

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  • Sorry to hear you also experienced something similar, I'm just living it from a distant passenger seat and it is terrifying enough. I think that the only reason they didn't find a way to terminate her earlier is because either they failed when they tried to set her up for failure with the new responsibilities, or they were waiting for their latest addition to their administration (which conveniently started last week). It could have been a plan-A-plan-B setup, who knows? Jun 10 at 23:28

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