Balancing Act: Misunderstanding workplace rules could cost your job

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As we launch into a new year, it's an ideal time to brush up on your workplace rights.

"What you think you know about your employment rights is probably dead wrong," said Donna Ballman, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., employee-side labor attorney and author of "Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired."

If you think your boss needs a reason to fire you, you're wrong. In every state, with the exception of Montana, employers can fire employees for any reason or no reason at all. But you can learn strategy to help you come out ahead in career-threatening situations.

Let's say you choose to tell your boss he's a bully or publicly criticize his style of management. Know that not a single state has a law against workplace bullying and that your criticism could get you fired in most states.

"When you work for a private sector employer, you have no constitutional right of free speech," said Mark Neuberger, a management-side employment attorney with Foley & Lardner in Miami. "Most workers think they do and think they can speak out, but they are wrong. They get fired and learn the hard way that they might have been better off addressing their issues differently."

Knowing your workplace rights starts even before you land the job.

Prospective employees are getting tripped up in the hiring process by answering questions on job applications and in interviews without knowing what's legally allowed. An employer isn't supposed to ask questions that reveal a protected status such as age or race. If an employer asks, "What race are you?" or "Do you have any kids?" you should answer truthfully, Ms. Ballman said, but keep a copy of the application or make a note of the inappropriate question.

Once hired, new employees face another quandary. They often sign paperwork without carefully reading what's shoved in front of them.

"You should understand what you are agreeing to, and assume it will be enforced," Ms. Ballman said. "And if you are bound by an agreement, make sure you have a copy."

This year, the biggest workplace clashes are expected to arise from online behavior. Employees are asking, "Can my employer monitor my Internet usage and read my emails?"

The answer is yes. Assume your employer is monitoring your emails at work and act accordingly. Don't review anything, forward anything or post anything from your work computer that isn't work-related, Ms. Ballman advises.

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Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegal@gmail.com


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