Sunday, May 8, 2011

10 Workplace Rights You Thought You Had…

Most people think they know their rights as an employee. Unfortunately, most of their information has come from television lawyer shows—definitely not a good source for legal facts. First thing to remember—there are federal laws and state laws and those state laws vary from state to state. What's valid in one state might not apply to any other state.

So…before you inform your employer that you know your rights, you might want to double check those facts.

1) "I was wrongfully terminated."
If you live in Montana, that's a possibility. Montana is the only state that has a law saying you can only be fired for just cause. The other 49 states are referred to as at-will states which means you can be fired for any reason. Or no reason at all.

2) "I know I have the right to see my file."
Don't go storming into the personnel office or human resources office and demand to see your personnel file because you have that right. There is no federal law that requires a private employer to let you inspect your file on demand or copy information from it. There are only some states that have laws requiring an employer to let you see your file and even fewer states where you are allowed to copy information from your personnel file. Many times, only legal action (such as a lawsuit) might get you access to your file.

3) "I demand my break right now."
There are no federal laws that require an employer to give you a work break for anything, even meals. Some states have laws requiring work breaks, but certainly not a majority of them. Health issues, such as bathroom breaks, are most likely covered by OSHA rulings. Lots of people get fired for demanding breaks they're not entitled to.

4) "I'm working in a hostile environment."
Unfortunately, a hostile environment is not illegal. Workplace harassment and bullying are not illegal, either. However, hostile environment or harassment due to race, age, sex, religion, national origin, disability, color, taking family and medical leave, whistle blowing, or other legally protected status is illegal.

5) "I exercised my First Amendment rights."
If you work for a private employer, that wasn't a good thing for you to have done. Only government employees have free speech protections, and those are very limited. In most states you can be fired for your speech, including political speech, both in the workplace and outside of it. There are specified exceptions, but it would be wise to make sure your situation falls in those parameters before speaking out.

6) "My boss invaded my privacy."
Your boss has the legal right to read your emails and monitor your internet usage at work. However, if your employer wants to listen to or record your phone calls, there are some legal restrictions. You also have privacy rights regarding your medical information. There is no federal law protecting your social security number, but New York and California have limited protection against your employer displaying it.

7) "But this is a right to work state."
A non-compete agreement and right to work are not the same thing. Right to work only means you cannot be compelled to join a union in order to work for that company. Right to work doesn't mean your employer can't restrict your ability to work for competitors after you leave. Some states are right to work states, but not all of them. If someone tells you that the non-compete agreement you signed is meaningless or won't be enforced, don't believe it.

8) "I was retaliated against after I complained."
There is no law prohibiting an employer from retaliating against you for reporting or objecting to policy violations, ethical violations, bullying, or the fact that your boss is a jerk. If you do something that puts you in a legally protected category (such as making a worker's comp claim), you might be protected from retaliation.

9) "I was discriminated against because my boss didn't like me."
It's not illegal for your employer to discriminate against you for being yourself. Favoritism, nepotism, and being obnoxious are not illegal. There are situations where your employer discriminating against you are illegal (see item #4).

10) "I not only want to sue my company—I want to sue my boss."
Even though it might be satisfying to sue your ex-boss personally, you probably can't. Federal and many state discrimination laws simply don't allow it.

So, before you mouth off to your boss you might want to check the laws in your state to see exactly what your legal rights are in the matter.


Lilly Gayle said...

Good post. I know there are times when I'd like say things at work for or against someone, but I can't. If I'm caught bad-mouthing my employer (a hospital)on the internet or to friends outside of work, I can be fired. Thankfully, I don't have much bad to say about the place. Overall, it's a good place to work.

Samantha Gentry said...

Lilly: Thanks. I was surprised by a lot of that information. It came from an article I read that was written by an attorney.

Jim Hartley said...

Re #2: I had occasion to ask to see the original employment contract I had signed twenty-odd years earlier and had no problems getting a copy of it. The issue involved ownership of software programs written on my own time and my own PC, and those hired later had definite restrictions that said the company owned such programs. My contract was so much older, it did not give the company ownership of programs, nobody had even thought of people writing software on their own when I was hired. But it didn't help much, I owned the programs but couldn't sell them or do anything with them, that would have been "competing with my employer," a no-no.

Samantha Gentry said...

Jim: That reminds me of Microsoft's beginnings...Gates had been writing software for IBM and they didn't see any benefit in owning the rights to it at that time since they believed that the hardware was all that counted. And the rest, as they say, is history. :)