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Career Advice

6 Major Things Your Boss Can’t Legally Do (and How to Push Back!)

what boss cannot do

Bosses can be very different, we all know. Some are your biggest supporters and empower you to do your best work with all the means they have. Other not-so-great types. They either don’t take much interest in their duties. Or worse — cross some red lines. 

If you wondered “Can my boss do that?!” on more than one occasion, chances are they are overstepping either professional or personal boundaries. But remember: despite being higher up the ranks than you are, there are many things your boss can’t legally do. 

Disclaimer: Freesumes is a media publisher. As such, all the opinions shared should not be treated as legal or financial advice.

Understanding Your Employee Rights

A significant body of US labor law protects employees against poor treatment, abuse, inadequate pay, and many other forms of toxic workplace practices. Specifically, as a worker you are: 

  • Legally protected from being discriminated against or harassed based on the grounds of your gender, ethnicity, age, national origin, or disability. The related laws also extend to any contractors, seasonal, or part-time employees
  • Entitled to at least minimum wage and overtime pay as per the Fair Labor Standards Act. Overall, all employees have the right to receive equal pay or equal work. 
  • Protected against being forced to undergo a polygraph (lie detector) test as per the employer’s request without any serious legal grounds.
  • Entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the birth or adoption of a child or to provide care to an ill close relative if you work at a company with 50+ employees. 

Overall, employee rights in the workplace are somewhat protected by different labor laws and policies. However, we know that oftentimes these provisions get “overlooked”. Moreover, there are many more circumstantial precedents laws do not cover in concrete terms.  

What Bosses Should Never Ask Employees to Do?

No matter the industry or position, your boss should never ask you to engage in any unlawful activities, work in unsafe conditions, prohibit you from discussing your salary with other employees, retaliate against a whistleblower, engage in any unfair competition practices, or ask you to perform work outside of your competencies or role description.

Beyond the above, there are even more things your boss can’t legally do.

1. Ask Sensitive Questions During a Job Interview 

If you have ever reviewed common interview questions, you’ve probably noticed that most err on the professional side. Most employers typically ask questions about your motivation, past work experiences, accomplishments, hard and soft skills

Some may also throw in a couple more general personal questions such as “Can you please tell me about yourself?” or discuss some of your hobbies and passions. These are perfectly acceptable too.

But you should proceed with caution if an employer starts asking about your:

  • Exact age
  • Marital or relationship status 
  • Whether you have kids 
  • Any parts of your appearance 
  • Ethnicity or lineage 
  • Credit score 

Interview questions around the following topics are illegal and discriminatory. So if something like this pops up, treat it as a major red flag. 

red flag job interview question

2. Force You to Sign a Rigid Non-Compete Agreement 

Non-compete agreements (NCAs) are common in many industries today. Effectively, this document prevents you from seeking employment with a direct competitor or pursuing the company’s clients independently for a specified period of time. 

While such contracts are not illegal per se, you cannot be forced to sign one. Especially if the terms sound too constrictive e.g. you are barred from working with any other PR firm in your city for the next 3 years. If you have doubts over the content and legality of a non-compete agreement and employer proposes, consult with an attorney. 

3. Ask To Do Work Outside of Your Competency

Many job descriptions today are fluid since employers are looking for candidates with a balanced portfolio of skills and core competencies. Still, there’s an extent to which your employer can ask you to “fill in” for someone else.

For instance, if you work as a medical receptionist, asking you to double as a physician’s assistant isn’t just adequate — it is illegal since you don’t have proper qualifications, licenses, and liability insurance. 

Thus, whenever you feel that you are pushed to cover for duties well outside of your competency, without any extra training, or extra pay, you’d be right to refuse. 

4. Treat Contractors as Full-Time Employees 

With so many gig jobs up for grabs, you shouldn’t discard an opportunity to work as an independent contractor either. However, if you do choose to hunt for jobs as a self-employed professional, watch out for employers who assume that a contractor = in-house hire. 

independent contractors

Because if they treat you as such, while the paperwork clearly states that you are hired as a contractor, they are actually breaching labor laws. Because the laws view your effective employment status as more important than any provisions within the signed contract. Respectively, if your boss asks you to show up to the office each day, clock in 8 hours, and otherwise act as a regular employee, you become entitled to all the benefits full-time employment implies.  

5. Enticing Unpaid Interns with a Job 

Internships offer recent graduates a great opportunity to practice some of the acquired skills and several solid entries for their first resume. The downside, however, is that not all internship opportunities are paid. 

While it’s your decision to accept or refuse non-paid work, an employer cannot coerce you into doing an unpaid internship under the pretense that this is the only way to ever get a real job with their organization. If anyone ever tries to convince you otherwise, run. 

6. Refuse to Pay Overtime 

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a full-time workweek means clocking in 40 hours over 5 days. Unless your work contract explicitly states that you have longer working hours, the employer must pay you overtime.

Your boss also cannot ask you to do 40-hours-per-week over the span of 3 or 4 days. In that case, they have to pay you overtime whenever you work over 8 hours. Likewise, if you were asked to work for six or seven days straight, you should be paid overtime. 

What are Unlawful Employment Practices?

An unlawful employment practice is any type of action that is intended to discriminate or harass a specific employee. Some common unlawful ​​discrimination in the workplace examples include being paid less than someone in the same role with the same qualifications; being overlooked, isolated, or dismissed on the grounds of age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, or personal attributes; being denied promotion, training, or job transfer for any other above grounds; being subjected to unprofessional remarks or taunts from colleagues or upper management. 

How Do You Fight Unfair Employment Practices and On the Job Behavior?

So you are now sure your boss is doing some shady things. Geez, we are sorry. But rage quitting a job without any backup plan is not a good idea. Besides, your boss may be a “rogue operator”, doing uncool things behind the managements’ back.  

Here are several things you can do to reign in your out of line boss: 

1. Document The Problematic Behaviors

Writing down specific instances of wrongful actions with a great level of detail is the first step. Be specific with timing, exact words or requests, witnesses, etc. Also, collect some “proof” — screenshots, testimonies, etc. Ask your colleagues if they too have had issues with the same person. Then approach a higher-level manager or an HR person to have a private conversation. 

taking notes of problematic behaviors

2. File a Formal Complaint 

If the management has failed to take any action on your complaints and nothing changes, gear up for filling a formal complaint with the HR department. Most have a procedure in place for reporting workplace issues. 

Doing so will escalate the issue to a higher priority. Moreover, filing a formal complaint gives you extra employee protection. An employer won’t be able to fire or lay you off as retaliation because this will immediately put them on the wrong side of the law. 

3. Consider Talking to an Attorney 

If matters become heated and your employer keeps indirectly mistreating or directly getting you off the job, the best action is to consult with an employment labor attorney. After all, you don’t want to get your professional reputation bruised because of someone else’s spiteful nature and unlawful actions. 

FAQs About Employee Rights In the Workplace

Below are answers to several common questions people have about unfair on-the-job treatment from their superiors. 

Can your boss legally swear at you?

Absolutely not. Your boss cannot use any crude language or any other types of remarks, which you (and others) may interpret as offensive or derogatory. Double-offense if they also include any discriminatory remarks to their swearing or complaints. In such cases, you are rightfully entitled to take legal action against them.  

Can I be fired for refusing to work in unsafe conditions?

Technically, yes, if your employer is delusional. But doing so will be unlawful. Meaning, you can sue them for unlawful termination and receive compensation. OSHA gives every worker the right to refuse work in dangerous conditions and also report such cases to them for further investigation.

Can your boss text you off the clock?

In practice, yes. They can do so if they do not appreciate your personal boundaries and the right to a work-life balance. But if they also expect you to provide a thorough answer and some follow-up action, this should be viewed as paid overtime work. If being on-call isn’t part of your work contract, it’s best to discuss the issue with the management. 

Can my boss tell me what to do outside of work?

No way. An employer cannot control your personal life beyond the office and say force you to act in one way or another. While some part of your work contract may have a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that prohibits you from disclosing sensitive corporate information to people in your personal circle or publicly, there is no other valid means of control an employer can exercise over your private life.

Author

  • Elena Prokopets

    Elena runs content operations at Freesumes since 2017. She works closely with copywriters, designers, and invited career experts to ensure that all content meets our highest editorial standards. Up to date, she wrote over 200 career-related pieces around resume writing, career advice... more

22 Comments

  1. I wonder what if the person doing these behaviors is the owner. What if you can’t go to HR because the owner is HR and management. She is doing plenty of illegal acts and also treating males and females completely different. In idaho right to work state. Family gets paid significantly more for much less work and are allowed to talk down to peers. I have proof of this. And she takes child support out monthly but does not apply it to the employees case. And so much more….

    1. Hi Heather,
      Wow, that does sound like some really unpleasant behavior. Our team really sympathizes with you. But I do agree with Mrs. Teach saying that you should either report these behaviors to EEOC. Or better — talk to an employment attorney first before taking any action.

  2. thanks for the information & the tips, but my problem is that we’ve got employee who are trained for working on the high level but are not getting paid for working on that environment. what must I do?

    1. Hi Christopher,
      Not quite sure what you’ve meant here. Are you talking about mismanagement issues between senior and lower-level staff?

  3. I’m needing help. my boss called me a week ago and said I was suspended from work with no pay that I’m under investigation by human resources. she demanded a statement from me and then told me to give my keys to the assistant manager and leave not to come in premises or I or family would be arrested. is this legal? I’ve never been written up nor was I ever talked to about these compliants. I’m thinking she wants me to quit

    1. Hi Susan,
      Gosh, this sounds quite stressful! Since we aren’t a legal team, we can’t advise you on the best course of action. But talking to an attorney is something you should definitely consider after such an incident (especially given the family-related threats).

  4. I have been out of work for over a week with covid-19 I have all the information from the hospital and also from my primary care physician now does my employer have to pay me for the sick days I have to have taken off because of the covid I work in a medical facility there’s no way of me getting around it

    1. Hi Judi,
      You should check your work contract or ask the HR team if you’re covered by paid sick leave. The HR team is obliged to explain your rights regarding paid sick leave and the company’s policies around that.

  5. well thank you for all this advice I appreciate it and it’s great hearing the feedback from other people as well My issue is there are people at my work doing drugs calling out being late every day and hung over and drunk when they do come in and nothing ever happens to them but the person showing up doing the job that gets harassed and bullied by the co-worker that isn’t doing their job gets in trouble and the person that doesn’t work and does drugs is still there. they even verbally threatened me to have me fired an HR did nothing. The company doesn’t want to hear the truth they want to push you out but they’ll keep the riffraff. what do I do?

    1. Hi Sue,
      That doesn’t sound like a great place to work at all. Our best advice is to dust off your resume and start applying for open positions. No one deserves to work in a toxic workplace where verbal abuse is the norm.

  6. Hi, I recently had a conversation with my supervisor,
    I had taken some days off to visit my parents but I had to cancel and move the dates, I move the dates from 6 weeks from the day I told her, she accused me that it was my fault and that she doesn’t know if she can get coverage for me all this saying it in very derogatory tone, through the whole conversation I was trying to work something out because I had changed ticket planes and paid a lot of money that I can’t loose and she keep threatening me that if I don’t come I will loose my job , I’m doing everything that the policy advice regarding time off, can a supervisor threatened you with your job? I know in NY is illegal to even mention something related to that matter to any employee. By the way I live in Florida.
    Thanks.

  7. My 16 year old daughter works and yesterday there was a misunderstanding between her and her team members at work. The second cashier was told by a customer that the first cashier (my daughter) said to give $60 in twenties so the second cashier did without asking. Then my daughter’s boss came to tell her that she was missing $60 out of her register, made her sign a paper and suspended her for 3 days but the one who was actually missing the $60 is the second cashier. I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk to my daughter’s manager or not. Any opinions or advice please.

  8. My employer fired me at a Christmas meeting, I told her I had trouble making because I needed to drop my significant other off and she received that text same day notice of the meeting, I went too the meeting got forced to sign Christmas cards and finally sat down to have the so called meeting. In between the meeting I tell her it’s my time to go, she has my text that I need to drop my significant other off at work and she says something smart saying I got notified of this meeting but so did she about my situation, she is obviously angry and yells at me and I tell her not to yell at me and proceeds to tell me how bad of an employee I am and that she lost this and this at her own house! I wasn’t even on the clock… I had my mother on the phone and she was a witness on how I was spoken too and attacked and I’m not sure what to do now there also plenty of concerning things I had to wait hours for my check, after work I would get texts to come back to work when I’m already home , now they won’t respond to me about their employer number

  9. In my experience once you go to HR, they are not your friend they represent the Employer and are preventing lawsuits. Detailed records are a must and the best thing your employer can do for you is fire you if you have detailed notes and have been to the EEOC and hired an attorney. As once you call HR your manager will retaliate and they will try to get rid of you and they can when you are at an at will state they don’t even have to have a reason.

  10. In my job, like many others, we accrue paid time off. Everyone else in the office takes theirs and there seems to be no issues about it, but when I need to do something like go insure and tag my new car, my boss tells me that I’m letting my personal life interfere with my job. Just a week ago he missed four days to be home with a sick child, which is understandable, however, I feel like tagging and insuring my car is also understandable and it’s my time they shouldn’t use that as a knock against my job performance just because I use pto like everyone else!!

  11. I work in a medical/surgical practice and our CEO is forcing doctors to misdiagnose patients to clear them for medical procedures even if it is unsafe to do so.
    HR has forced me to discuss my complaints in a group setting with over 90 employees on video call.
    Upper management has also advised employees to not discuss pay with other employees which is illegal in Washington state.
    We are also not allowed any breaks or lunch break during surgery day as we get so busy. These are all illegal acts in Washington state.
    Formal complaints have been made to the company and HR but nothing has happened, what should I do?

  12. Can anyone tell me what exactly are the laws on breaks for an employee of a kfc/ taco bell employee. I don’t exactly understand what Google is stating , just for an invite I work usually 8-4 and our store is usually pretty busy even though we don’t open till 10 am from 8 am on it stays a steady pace and this time of year extra steady , anyway I worked from 8 am till 3pm and still no break when I asked about one they looked at me and said when we by law don’t have to give you anything , an if they decide too they can give it to you 30 mins into shift or 30 mins before the end of my shift. So I just wanted to know exactly where I stand and if any laws are in place for full time employees like myself.

    1. Can my employer or a co-worker clock me out 2 hours before my shift is over when I did nothing wrong and not even close to overtime? I was physically still working and had more to finish.

  13. The manager is trying to tell me I said I quit,…which I did not,.. I said if you can’t give me an answer to my question I’m asking then I will quit. Never said I quit. He comes back with well as I recall you did so quit, ..your “actions” said you quit! now I’m assuming and trying to figure out if this is allowed because he has told me not to return back to work and if I do police will be called

  14. I work in a health care setting, there are 2 RNs, we have to discharge our pts and wheelchair them out, we have no help or medical assistant to help with wheeling pts out , sometimes we can’t take a lunch because there’s no one to cover us, we can not comfortably leave 1 nurse to take over Pacu without a medical assistant? We get questioned and yelled out for not taking a lunch which is totally unprofessional because we are short staffed and don’t want to leave our colleagues alone in the Pacu., we don’t get reviews or raises either.. is there anything we can do?

  15. I was hired as a hourly worker. Now the boss wants us to work as piece workers. She has yet to tell us what exactly the rate will be and what it all entails. Will my taxes status change? Am I now a contract worker? What about the sick time and paid holiday we get now? Do I have to agree and take the new piece work do I need to sign a contract.? idk what to do. feeling screwed…

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