Everyone tells me they know their employee rights. Some are even dumb enough to tell their employers they know their rights. The problem is, most of you are getting your legal information from courtroom TV shows or coworkers who know less than you do. Before you mouth off about your rights, here are some laws that most employees think exist - that don't.
• Wrongful termination
If you live in Montana, your employer can only fire you for just cause. Otherwise, they can fire you for any reason or no reason at all. They don’t have to have a good reason. They don’t even have to give a reason in most states. Arizona has a law based on the Montana law, but they took the "just cause" (and some other pro-employee stuff)out of it.
• Right to your file
No federal law requires private employers to allow employees to inspect or copy their own personnel files. Some states require employers to allow you to look at your file. Fewer allow you to copy items in your file. Many times, the only way you’ll find out what’s in your file is if you sue and you get it with a Request for Production, or if you subpoena it in unemployment or other proceedings.
No federal law requires employers to offer any work breaks for anything, even meals. Some state laws do require work breaks, but it’s not a majority. No law requires bathroom breaks, but it's probably a health issue, so OSHA might protect you if your employer denies bathroom breaks. If you're a nursing mother, you're entitled to an unpaid break to express breast milk if your employer is big enough. Some states also offer protection for nursing moms taking breaks.
• Hostile environment/harassment
Hostile work environment is not illegal. Harassment is not illegal. Bullying is not illegal. Hostile work environment or harassment due to race, age, sex, religion, national origin, disability, color, taking Family and Medical Leave, whistleblowing, or some other legally-protected status is illegal.
• Free speech
Only government employees have free speech protections, and those are very limited. You can be fired for your speech in the workplace or outside the workplace if you work for a private employer. You can't be fired for speaking on behalf of coworkers in order to improve work conditions or for objecting to something illegal, but be very careful to make sure you're protected before you speak out.
There is no law giving you privacy in your work emails or internet usage. If your employer is going to listen into or record phone calls, there are legal restrictions. You also have privacy rights in your medical information. There is no federal law protecting your social security number, but California and New York do offer limited protection against employers displaying your number.
• Right to work
Right to work doesn’t mean your employer can’t make you sign a non-compete agreement or restrict your ability to work for competitors after you leave. What it means is they can’t make you join a union in order to work there. Some states, but not all, are right to work states. If your company tells you that signing a noncompete agreement is meaningless or that it won’t be enforced, they are lying to you.
There is no law prohibiting an employer from retaliating against you for reporting or objecting to policy violations, ethical violations, bullying, or jerkish behavior. Only if you do something that puts you in a legally protected category are you protected from retaliation. Examples would be objecting to discrimination, making a worker’s comp claim, or taking Family and Medical Leave.
Discriminating against you for being you is never illegal. Favoritism, nepotism, being a jerk, are not illegal. Discrimination based on age, race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, color and genetic information are illegal.
• Individual liability
As much as it may give you joy to sue your boss personally, you probably can’t. Federal and many state discrimination laws, Family and Medical Leave Act (in some states - the courts disagree on this), and most other laws simply don’t allow it. The one exception is wage and hour violations. Some state discrimination laws do hold supervisors liable for violations. But what’s the point? Unless they’re rich, you probably won’t be able to collect anyhow.
Well that's wrong. What can I do about it?
Since most people think these laws exist, maybe it's time for them to actually be passed. Email your congressperson and state representative now and complain if you don't like the fact that you're not protected. Here are some places to find out how to contact your representative in Congress:
Here's a website with contact information for elected officials at the state and federal level:
Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly.