10 Shattered Myths About Workplace Rights
by Alison Green | U.S.News & World Report LP – Feb. 7, 2012
Most people think they know what rights they have at work--but they're
wrong frequently. Workplace law isn't always intuitive, and just because
something is unkind doesn't mean it's illegal.
Check out these common myths concerning workplace rights, and test your own
knowledge of what your boss can and cannot do.
1. Myth: It's illegal for an interviewer to ask about your religion,
national origin, marital status, number of children, etc.
most states, the act of asking these questions itself is not illegal. What
is illegal is basing a hiring decision on the answers to these questions. So
since an employer can't factor in your answers, there's no point in asking
them, and smart interviewers don't
go near these topics. (Note that it is illegal to ask about
2. Myth: It's illegal for employers to provide a detailed reference, or
any information beyond confirming job title and dates of employment.
legal for an employer to give a detailed reference, including negative
information, as long as it's factually accurate. That said, some companies
do have policies against giving references, but these policies are easily
worked around; most reference-checkers don't have difficulties obtaining
references, no matter what the official policies say.
3. Myth: If your boss bullies you, you can sue under "hostile workplace"
or being a jerk is bad management, but it's not illegal. The exception: If
your boss is being a jerk to you because of your race, gender, religion, or
other protected class, then you do have legal protection. But 99 percent of
jerky bosses act like jerks just because they are, and that is legal.
4. Myth: Employers are required to provide paid time off.
state or federal law requires paid vacation time. A very small number of
jurisdictions require paid sick leave, but the majority of Americans live in
places not covered by those laws. Of course, most employers offer paid
vacation and sick days anyway to be competitive and attract good
employees--but there's a difference between what's smart and customary, and
5. Myth: Your employer can't just reassign you to different duties or to
a whole new job.
you have a contract that says otherwise, your employer can change your job
dramatically, including restructuring it completely. Saying "no" may mean
saying no to working at the company.
6. Myth: An employer can't require you to attend work-related events
outside of regular work hours.
can indeed be required to attend events outside of your normal hours,
including trainings, meetings, and even parties. However, if you're a
non-exempt employee, then you must be paid for time you're required to
participate in work-related activities.
7. Myth: Employers must provide you with breaks during the workday.
federal law requires that workers receive lunch or other breaks. Some states
require breaks, but most do not.
8. Myth: You can sue if your boss makes an offensive or discriminatory
remark to you.
remark on its own isn't enough for a discrimination lawsuit. Instead, a suit
requires offensive conduct so severe that it alters the terms of your
9. Myth: Your employer must warn you before you're fired.
law requires employees receive warning before being fired. In fact, your
boss can tell you that you're doing a great job every day for 300 days
straight and then fire you on day 301 without any warning at all.
10. Myth: Your boss must have a justifiable reason for firing you.
employer can fire you for any reason at all or for no reason, as long as
you're not being fired because of your membership in a legally protected
class (race, religion, nationality, sex, marital status, disability, and so
forth). You can even be fired because your boss doesn't like your laugh or
the color of your shirt.
There are two exceptions: one, if you have a contract, which most people in
the United States do not; or two, if your company has an employee manual
that commits to always using specific disciplinary procedures before firing
someone. In the later case, your company is generally obligated to follow
those procedures first.
Alison Green writes
the popular Ask
a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search,
and management issues. She's also the author of Managing
to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and
former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she
oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee
development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.