By Steven Mitchell Sack, Legal Strategies Publications, Merrick, N.Y., 620 pages, $39.95.
Most books about the practical aspects of the law fall into one of two traps. Either they are laden with “war stories” and other anecdotal examples that are too fact-specific for general use, or they are peppered with citations, in text or in footnotes, that require periodic and expensive updating, and inevitably interrupt the narrative flow of the main text.
In his revised and enlarged third edition of “The Employee Rights Handbook,” author Steven Mitchell Sack deftly avoids both of these traps, and provides a comprehensive guide to employment law that is extremely useful regardless of whether the reader is an experienced or novice practitioner, an employee or member of management, or even a judge or arbitrator. He does so by articulating basic principles, relying primarily on federal law, and focusing on logical approaches to common problems and frequently-encountered situations.
Mr. Sack, a prolific writer and practicing attorney with whom I have dealt on many matters over the past 25 years, has a registered trademark for himself as “The Employee’s Lawyer,” and the book is certainly geared toward advising employees and their counsel about understanding, protecting and enforcing their rights and remedies. However, Sack does not take a position on the wisdom or fairness of many of the statutory rules and regulations and common-law customs and practices that affect employment in the United States today. Instead, Sack provides hard-nosed, realistic, and practical advice and guidance about the many issues arising in the workplace.
Employment law is similar in many respects to landlord-tenant and criminal law, in that each side of the contest may be heard to claim that the deck is stacked in favor of the other. As an attorney who represents employees as well as management, I was particularly impressed by Sack’s even-handed approach, as it offers a balance often sadly lacking in the heated battleground of employment law.
Recognizing the varied needs of potential readers, Sack has made his book extremely user-friendly. In addition to a standard table of contents and index, he has added a descriptive table of agreements, forms, sample letters and checklists at the front of the book. Text is broken up with many side captions, checklists, boxes and tables, and pointed strategy summaries that capsulize the preceding pages of advice. These aids make this a very versatile desk book for busy practitioners.
The book is logically arranged along the arc of a typical employment relationship, starting even before the interview, proceeding through the entire hiring process, continuing through active employment, and concluding with separation and post-termination rights and obligations.
In analyzing the interviewing and hiring phase, Sack focuses the reader in chapters 1 and 2 on the kinds of questions that employees and employers may or may not ask each other, and ones that they should ask themselves. In doing so, Sack assesses the delicate balance between a prospective employer’s right and need to know about an applicant’s background, on the one hand, and the applicant’s right to privacy, on the other.
To make his point even clearer, Sack includes simple comparisons between acceptable and unacceptable questions. No nuance or detail escapes Sack’s comprehensive analysis, and readers on both sides of the employment relationship may be surprised at how inartful phrasing may turn an innocent question into an objectionable or even actionable one.
This topic deserves special attention from Human Resources personnel as well as lawyers, because asking improper questions, in addition to making applicants uncomfortable, can expose a company to litigation and regulatory liability.
Sack also focuses squarely on the kinds of questions that should be asked to avoid misunderstandings about such basic aspects of employment as payroll frequency, commissions, bonuses, vacations and overtime.
Chapters 3, 4 and 5 offer a detailed analysis of the rights of employees while employed, the circumstances which do or do not constitute discrimination, and other “nuts and bolts” advice that is useful to anyone in the field.
This section includes quick and easy references to every aspect of the employment relationship, but recognizes the degree to which much of the law may be in flux, and urges the non-lawyer reader to consult counsel if a more detailed, current and state-specific answer is required. In doing so, Sack recognizes that no book of this type, no matter how long or well-sourced, can be all things to all readers. Sack provides the greatest good for the greatest number by providing general principles, concrete examples, and mechanisms for obtaining more specifics.
I particularly liked Sack’s thoughtful approach in Chapters 6, 7, and 8, which deal with recurring hiring and firing problems, most of which have no easy answers. The book recognizes and confronts the inevitable tension between standing up for one’s rights and being labeled a troublemaker. Also helpful is a logical approach for recognizing the “handwriting on the wall,” and for dealing with it when it is delivered via a pink slip.
For example, there is a significant section devoted to the considerations that apply when an employee is faced with the decision of whether to resign or be fired. Sack’s basic premise is that one should only resign when absolutely necessary to preserve one’s reputation, as voluntary resignation will often irreversibly prejudice an employee’s right to receive bonuses, continued vesting of stock and options, and unemployment benefits.
Chapters 9 and 10 are reserved for those situations where arbitration, litigation, or other forms of dispute resolution are necessary. Sack offers a plain English explanation of each phase of each process, as well as useful advice on selection and hiring of a lawyer.
I think that the most critical test of a trade reference book like this is how often you consult it, and how helpful it is when you do. Measured by that standard, Sack’s book is a clear winner, earning a place well within arm’s reach, and a surprisingly large number of Post-it notes and underlinings in the short time I have had it.