I always advise how crucial it is for women to be aware of their rights and protections in the workplace, and understanding thing your boss can’t legally do is key in this effort.
Now, let me preface this by saying I am NOT a lawyer. I am an HR professional who has spent a lot of time with employment lawyers and have gained a working knowledge of this stuff as it relates to my job. I will also share that this is specific to the United States. Each country has its own rules, laws, and regulations that inform how employers operate.
While most bosses operate within legal boundaries, there are instances when they may engage in prohibited or illegal practices. This article will discuss some of the things your boss cannot legally do, ensuring you stay informed and safeguarded against potential violations.
Employment laws are put in place to maintain a fair, safe, and equitable workplace for all employees. Despite these regulations, some bosses may unknowingly or intentionally overstep their boundaries. Everything from asking inappropriate questions during interviews to enforcing strict non-compete agreements, being aware of what your employer cannot legally do empowers you to take control of your workplace situation and seek the necessary remedies if your rights are violated.
Things Your Boss Can’t Legally Do: Engage in Discrimination and Harassment
Discrimination and harassment in the workplace are both legally prohibited behaviors. Employers are not allowed to treat employees or job applicants unfairly based on their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.
Let’s dive into the details regarding protected classes and sexual harassment.
Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) laws, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees and job applicants who belong to the following protected classes:
- Sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation)
- National origin
- Age (40 or older)
- Genetic information
Employers must ensure equal treatment in all aspects of employment, including hiring, promotions, training, compensation, and termination. Any neutral employment policies and practices that have a disproportionately negative effect on a protected class may also be deemed illegal.
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is strictly prohibited by the EEOC. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment becomes unlawful when:
- Enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment
- The conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive
Sexual harassment can take various forms, including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It is essential for employers to take all complaints seriously and promptly investigate any allegations to ensure a harassment-free workplace for all employees.
Things Your Boss Can’t Legally Do: Engage in Wage and Hour Violations
Wage and hour violations are unfortunately common issues employees face in the workplace.
These violations occur when employers do not comply with federal and state labor laws regarding minimum wage, overtime pay, and meal and rest breaks. In this section, we’ll examine the legal requirements for these areas and how they protect employees’ rights.
Employers are legally required to pay their workers at least the federal or state minimum wage, whichever is higher. As of 2021, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but many states have higher minimum wages(source). It is illegal for your boss to pay you less than the applicable minimum wage for your location.
Employees who work more than 40 hours in a week are generally entitled to overtime pay at a rate of 1.5 times their regular hourly rate. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as employees classified as exempt or those in specific industries(source). However, it is illegal for a boss to refuse or neglect to pay you overtime if you are eligible.
Meal and Rest Breaks
Depending on your state, your employer may be required to provide you with meal and rest breaks during your workday. These breaks are typically unpaid and vary in length depending on the duration of your shift and state laws(source). It is important to familiarize yourself with your state’s regulations and ensure your boss complies with these rules.
Things Your Boss Can’t Legally Do: Workplace Safety and Health
Ensuring the safety and health of employees is a critical aspect of a lawful work environment. Employers have legal obligations to provide their workers with a safe and healthy workplace. This section covers two key sub-areas: OSHA Compliance and Workers’ Compensation.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets standards and enforces regulations to ensure that employers maintain safe workplaces. It’s illegal for an employer to ignore these standards or retaliate against employees who report safety violations. Employers must:
- Implement safety measures to prevent accidents and injuries
- Provide necessary safety equipment and training
- Notify OSHA of severe work-related injuries and fatalities within specific timeframes
- Display OSHA posters detailing workers’ rights and responsibilities
If employees feel their workplace is unsafe or unhealthy, they should report it to OSHA. Protection from retaliation for reporting unsafe conditions is provided under the Whistleblower Protection Program.
Workers’ compensation is an insurance program that provides benefits to employees who suffer work-related injuries or illnesses. Employers have the following legal obligations:
- Maintain workers’ compensation coverage for employees
- Provide information about workers’ compensation benefits
- Comply with reporting requirements if a worker gets injured or ill due to their job
Employers cannot legally retaliate against workers for filing a workers’ compensation claim or seeking benefits for a work-related injury or illness. If you believe your employer is failing to meet their legal obligations, consult a qualified attorney or seek assistance from your state’s workers’ compensation agency.
Things Your Boss Can’t Legally Do: Employee Privacy Rights
One critical aspect of a healthy work environment is respecting employee privacy. This section aims to provide an overview of the legal boundaries that employers should not cross. It covers two main areas where employee privacy rights must be protected: monitoring communications and drug testing.
While employers might have the right to monitor the communication channels used at work, there are limitations to protect employees’ privacy rights. Generally, it’s illegal for bosses to spy on their employees, including tracking emails, phone calls, and internet usage (source). Although employers can monitor emails at work as the system belongs to them (FindLaw), there must be legitimate reasons, such as quality control purposes, for monitoring phone calls.
Drug testing policies can also raise privacy concerns.
In most cases, employers need a valid reason to conduct drug tests, such as suspicion of drug use affecting work performance or safety. Some industries, such as transportation and construction, might have mandatory drug testing guidelines due to safety concerns. However, random drug testing without proper justification can be deemed as a violation of privacy rights.
It’s crucial for employers to be aware of the state and federal laws regarding drug testing, as these regulations may vary. Additionally, drug testing policies should be clear, consistently applied, and well-communicated to avoid infringing on employees’ privacy rights.
Things Your Boss Can’t Legally Do: Retaliation and Whistleblowing
Employees are legally protected when engaging in activities that report or oppose unlawful activities, known as whistleblowing. Such activities can include reporting illegal practices, unsafe working conditions, or other violations to relevant authorities or within the company. Additionally, employees may be protected when participating in investigations or legal proceedings related to these issues.
Employers are not allowed to retaliate against employees for engaging in protected activities, as mentioned in the Workplace Rights article.
Retaliation can take various forms, such as:
- Firing or demoting an employee
- Creating a hostile work environment
- Denying promotions or benefits
- Imposing disciplinary actions
These actions, when taken to punish employees for whistleblowing, can be considered illegal. If an employee feels they are facing retaliation, they should review the Whistleblower Protection Programs and consider filing a complaint with the appropriate government agency.
Things Your Boss Can’t Legally Do: Employee Classification
Independent Contractor vs. Employee
It’s crucial to ensure that employers correctly classify workers as either employees or independent contractors. Misclassification can lead to legal issues and penalties.
According to the Ladders, employers cannot:
- Treat independent contractors as employees
- Ask employees to perform tasks that are not part of their job description
Independent contractors are typically self-employed or freelance individuals who work on a project basis. They are not entitled to the same rights and benefits as employees, such as overtime pay and health insurance. Employees, on the other hand, have more legal protections and are generally subject to more control by the employer.
Exempt vs. Non-Exempt Status
An important distinction to make is between exempt and non-exempt employees. Non-exempt employees are eligible for overtime pay, while exempt employees are not. The Wenzel Fenton Cabassa states that employers may not:
- Refuse or neglect to pay non-exempt employees overtime
Exempt employees typically include executive, administrative, and professional workers, who earn a salary rather than hourly wages. To qualify as exempt, employees must meet specific criteria set by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), such as their job duties and salary level.
In contrast, non-exempt employees are paid hourly and are eligible for overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week. It’s crucial for employers to classify workers correctly to avoid violating employment laws and ensure that employees receive the protections they’re entitled to.
In summary, it is crucial for employees to be aware of their rights and the illegal actions employers might take in the workplace. Some of the main practices that bosses cannot legally do include asking illegal interview questions, discrimination, harassment, and signing broad non-compete agreements, among others.
Employees should remain vigilant and educate themselves about their legal rights, so they can identify and appropriately respond to any violations. If you believe your employer is engaging in unlawful activities, it might be a good idea to consult with an employment lawyer to discuss your options and determine the best course of action.
By staying informed about your legal rights and being proactive with handling any issues, you can help ensure a more respectful, fair, and legally compliant work environment for yourself and your colleagues.