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.
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.
- Allowed to work only in safe working conditions and decline any work that breaches safety and health standards, set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
- 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.
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.
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.
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.