If you've ever witnessed your boss doing something that seems unfair to you or a co-worker, you might have wondered, "Can they really do that?" They don't teach workplace law in school, and so collectively, Americans tend to lack understanding about what employers can and can't do where employees are concerned.
Here are some questions you might wonder about.
1. My boss told my co-workers what my salary is! Can she do that?
Answer: Yes. No law requires that your salary information be confidential, and your employer is allowed to share it with others if she wishes to. In fact, some companies share everyone's salary as a matter of course (and some people argue that doing so helps combat pay discrimination).
2. Can my boss tell me that I can't discuss my salary with my co-workers?
Answer: No. Despite the fact that many employers have policies that attempt to ban these discussions, the National Labor Relations Act makes it illegal for employers to prohibit employees from discussing wages among themselves.
3. My boss said that I can't take the day I requested off work, even though I have enough vacation time stored up to do it. Can he do that?
Answer: Yes. While your vacation time is part of your benefits package, your employer retains the right to approve or deny specific leave requests. That's because managers sometimes need to deny time off if it would leave your department short-staffed or cause problems during an especially busy time.
4. My manager told me I have to stop teasing a co-worker about politics. Doesn't that violate my right to free speech?
Answer: The First Amendment prevents the government from restricting your speech -- but private employers are still free to regulate employees' speech. (One important exception to this is that employers cannot interfere with employees who are discussing wages or working conditions with their co-workers, as in No. 2 above.)
5. Can my boss deduct money from my paycheck for doing a bad job?
Answer: No, your employer cannot dock your salary for poor performance. Your employer agreed to pay you a certain salary when you accepted the job, and that wage cannot be changed retroactively as punishment or for any other reason. However, your employer can change your pay going forward, after warning you of the change and giving you a chance to decline to do the work at the new wage.
6. Can my boss give me a bad reference when I'm looking for a job?
Answer: It's legal for an employer to give a negative reference, as long as it's factually accurate. It's true that some companies, in an effort to avoid the headache of nuisance lawsuits, have implemented policies that they will only confirm dates of employment and title. As a result, many people have come to believe that it's actually illegal to give a bad reference. But corporate policies aren't the law (and often aren't even followed by the companies that have them).
7. My boss changed my job description and says that I have to do work that's dramatically different from what I was hired to do. Is that allowed?
Answer: Your employer can change your job description at any time, or direct you do work other than what you were hired for. The only time this wouldn't be true is if you had a contract that spelled out the work you were signing on for -- but most workers in the U.S. don't have contracts and instead are subject to "at will" employment. This allows your employer to change the terms of your employment at any time.
8. Can my manager bully me, single me out for poor treatment, yell at me, or otherwise mistreat me?
Answer: Bullying or being a jerk is bad management, but it's not illegal. However, if your manager is treating you differently because of your race, sex, religion or another protected class, then you do have legal protection; that would violate federal anti-discrimination laws. But if your manager is just a jerk because she doesn't like you or is a hostile person generally, that's not against the law.
9. I complained to human resources about my boss and asked them to keep it confidential, but they told my boss. Is that legal?
Answer: Yes. HR isn't obligated to keep what you tell them confidential, even if you request their discretion. HR staffers aren't doctors or priests, and you shouldn't assume confidentiality when talking to them. If they hear information that they decide needs to be shared or used to address a problem, their job obligates them to do that.
10. I gave two weeks notice at work, and my boss told me to just leave now. Do they still have to pay me for those two weeks?
Answer: A smart employer would still pay you for those two weeks, since otherwise they're signaling to other employees that they too will lose money if they give notice rather than quitting on the spot. But that's up to your employer -- no law requires them to pay you for time you didn't work, even though you wanted to work out those final two weeks.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager'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.
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