Yes, it’s legal … queries from a combined 13 years of blogging about the workplace

Earlier this week, after the question here about whether it’s legal for your employer to make you clean up rat poo, Suzanne Lucas — Evil HR Lady — and I talked about how awesome it would be if we put together a book of all the fake employment laws that people think exist but actually don’t.

We are too lazy to put together a book, but we can manage a blog post. We both went through our archives and came up with this list of things that people have asked us about. Without further ado, here is a (still not fully comprehensive) list of the legalities we’ve addressed in the last combined 13 years of blogging (seven for her and six for me).

It’s legal for your manager to try to make you feel guilty about not coming in on the weekend.

It’s legal for your manager to make you clean up rat poo.

It’s legal not to offer direct deposit.

It’s legal for your manager to share your resignation letter with your coworkers.

It’s legal for employers to favor candidates with more recent experience than you have.

It’s legal for your company to prohibit you from talking at work with your coworker who happens to be your husband.

It’s legal for your company to ask you to distribute personal mail to employees who have it sent to your office.

It’s legal for a company to relist a job rather than hiring any of the candidates they interviewed in the first round, no matter how qualified those candidates might be.

It’s legal for your company not to let you take home the employee handbook.

It’s legal for your company to ban fish from being cooked in the office microwave.

It’s legal for your coworker to refuse to speak to you.

It’s legal for your employer to designate one of the office bathrooms as being for guests only.

It’s legal for your manager to tell your coworker that she plans to write you up.

It’s legal to remove someone from the work schedule until they agree to show up for a staff meeting.

It’s legal to fill a job without advertising it and giving other people a chance to apply for it.

It’s legal to ban dating among coworkers.

It’s legal not to hire someone because they don’t seem enthusiastic about the job.

It’s legal for your boss to ask you if you’re looking for another job.

It’s legal for a company to decide not to recruit for a position internally and only consider external candidates.

It’s legal to require your attendance at a weekend event.

It’s legal for your employer to reveal your salary to your coworkers.

It’s legal for your company owner to hold his or her spouse, who works there, to different standards than everyone else is held to.

It’s legal to contact people who aren’t on your reference list and ask them about you.

It’s legal for your boss to ask you to pick up his lunch, even though it’s not in your job description.

It’s legal for your manager to yell.

It’s legal for a company to maintain a do-not-hire list.

It’s legal to make you stay at the office and work if you decline to go on the company cruise.

It’s legal to share your performance stats with your coworkers.

It’s legal for your employer to have a random coworker deliver the message that you’re fired.

It’s legal to have you train a new coworker, even though you have no experience training and find it stressful.

It’s legal for your boss to let your coworker have three-day weekends, even though she doesn’t have seniority.

It’s legal for your boss to require you to read a self-help book and test you on it.

It’s legal for your employer not to give raises.

It’s legal to be sent home because you’re in a bad mood because the windshield of your car was smashed.

It’s legal to ban sugary foods from the office.

It’s legal for your employer to give your cell phone number to other employees.

It’s legal for your boss to require you to put tulle bags of wedding favors together.

It’s legal for your employer to ban you from using your personal computer on their network.

It’s legal to cut your pay going forward.

It’s legal to ban gambling at the office.

It’s legal to fire someone who is pregnant (just not because of pregnancy).

It’s legal to quote scripture at work.

It’s legal (for now in most states) to discriminate against the unemployed.

It’s legal to ask for a salary history.

It’s legal to refuse to hire you if you don’t provide a salary history.

It’s legal to fire you for complaining about something that is not illegal.

It’s legal to give you a bad reference.

It’s legal to share the content of your PIP with other people.

It’s legal to not hire someone because you dislike their relatives.

It’s legal to hire your cousin over a more qualified unrelated candidate.

It’s legal to Google your coworkers.

It’s legal to fire someone who has cancer (just not because of the cancer).

it’s legal to require a general release before paying severance.

It’s legal for HR to forward your confidential emails to other people.

It’s legal to gossip at work.

It’s legal to fire someone via email.

It’s legal to ask someone if they speak English.

It’s legal to still terminate someone who hands in a resignation and then changes her mind.

It’s legal to be a jerk.

It’s legal to fire someone for being a jerk.

It’s legal to have a policy against rehiring anyone.

It’s legal to require overtime (as long as it’s paid properly).

{ 211 comments… read them below }

  1. Evan

    “It’s legal to fire you for complaining about something that is not illegal” should’ve been at the end as the final twist. :)

  2. AdAgencyChick

    “It’s legal for your boss to require you to put tulle bags of wedding favors together.”

    Oh god, where was this? I so want to see the OP.

    1. Beth Anne

      At my first Admin/Data Entry job my bosses daughter got married about 8 months into my job….I ended up doing a TON of wedding things for her as part of my “job” it was crazy…most of it was making spreadsheets and mailing invitations…

  3. happycat

    I would like to add that it is legal for your employer to ask you to NOT meow at people. Just saying.

    1. Calla

      I once read a story of someone complaining discrimination because they were fired for growling at customers.

      (if you’re wondering what kind of discrimination… against otherkin.)

  4. Anonymous

    So basically American workers have very little protection from companies acting with impunity about practically anything excepted a protected status such as race or religion. Good to know.

      1. Mike C.

        At my last job, all the research scientists on H1-B visas were required to work 6-7 days/week 10+ hour days, while those who wouldn’t be deported if fired weren’t required to work similar hours.

        Since there’s no federal limit to the number of hours you can make someone work, that’s totally legal.

            1. Cat

              I think that if it disparately affects people of particular national origins (which in this case it would since everyone from the U.S. would be immune), then it still qualifies as actionable discrimination. I say this knowing that enforcing this type of stuff is extremely difficult.

              1. JCDC

                Yup, you could (theoretically) make a disparate impact case. But I am assuming that can be tough to prove.

              2. Mike C.

                Not quite. I said immigration status. The tricky thing here is that there were folks from with permanent residency who were treated normally, while H1-B visa holders from the same were treated as I explained above.

                But even if I’m wrong, you still have a group of people who don’t know the laws very well, and certainly aren’t in a situation to report. The instant someone reports the owner they could all easily be fired for “no reason”. Sure, things might be ok after long months of dealing with the courts, but have you been deported back in that time? What about the rest of your family? How do you afford the lawyers to deal both with immigration and with the labor issue when you don’t have a job?

                When you start talking immigration, things get ugly really fast. :(

              3. Cat

                Mike, as I said, I think there’s still a legal case here: everyone who is on an H1-B visa is not from the U.S. Some of the permanent workers are from the U.S. Thus, the policy has a disproportionate impact on people who aren’t from the U.S., which is illegal.

                I absolutely agree that enforcement – and the power to speak up without repercussions – are serious issues in this context. However, as I said in another comment, I think it’s important to separate those things out. The solutions are different if you’re changing the underlying legality of something vs. changing mechanisms for enforcing something vs. changing protections for whistleblowers, etc.

                1. Anonymous

                  Disproportionate impact isn’t illegal, though; discrimination against someone because of their national origin is. So these workers would have to establish that their job was discriminating against them because of their national origin, which I think may be difficult unless all or most of them are of the same national origin and very few of the citizen workers are.

                2. Cat

                  I don’t think that’s right, Anonymous; I think disparate impact is illegal when something is a protected class in the employment law context.

          1. Anonymous

            Yes, but if they complain at best they lose their job, and at worst if their manager/PI is a big name in their field, they may never work in their field again anywhere.

            PI = Principal investigator AKA person who has funding and chooses what to research, may not do any actual management

            1. Cat

              Oh, I know, and tried to say that in my last comment. However, I think it’s important to isolate these things out when discussing it because if something is illegal but not being enforced the solutions are different than if something is not illegal at all.

    1. RG

      Yes – The US employment laws are the bare minimum backstop to prevent employers from being completely awful. They are not there to set a bar of reasonableness. That’s what “at will” employment is for. You have the ability to quit your employment at any time and fine better work. It’s your job as an employee to vote with your feet (or unionize!) if you think there is something that needs change.

      The idea is that a good employer who wants to retain good employees will offer the benefits that work for their employees and their industry, without being constrained by one-size fits all rules imposed by a higher authority that doesn’t have the flexibility to respond to the market.

      1. Mike C.

        As I’ve been discussing above, say that to a worker on a work visa who’s choice is “misrepresented working conditions” or “violence/death/whatever terrible thing was on BBC World last night”.

    2. nyxalinth

      Yeah, pretty much. They aren’t very nice to employees here compared with other Western countries.

      1. Erin

        Yes, but we, even now, have lower unemployment rates. In Europe, it’s so incredibly hard to fire anyone that (1) employers are more reluctant to hire and (2) young people are scr*wed because the older people stay in their jobs forever.

          1. Chinook

            In Canada, most of that stuff is still legal you can even require someone to pull rat poo through wedding tulle while pregnant and survivng cancer for 12 hours straight (as long as you compensate the OT correctly and give them the appropriate safety equipment which may or may not be rquired in this new industry). Even in Quebec, it would be legal (unless the rats were all Anglo and refused language training and weren’t wearing noticeable religious items).

        1. De

          It’s really not that simple. Besides, some countries in Europe have very low unemployment. I hate people lumping well over 30 countries together like this.

          1. chikorita

            +1 pretty broad spectrum there. Pretty big disparity between, for example, Poland and the U.K., or Greece and Germany. There’s such a range in economies, working cultures, attitudes to older people, unemployment rates etc etc, especially the divide between eastern/western Europe.

            Here’s one example:

            Norwegian unemployment rate: 3.5%
            Greek unemployment rate: 26.8%

        2. Elaine

          In Germany, people are required to retire at 65 so younger people can find work. Or is it 63? I forget.

    1. AnonHR

      I think there should be an AAM store. It could stock samplers so I don’t have to stitch it. Also, “Yes, it’s legal” stickers or stamps, and some kind of talking button that says “What the hell??” incredulously.

      1. FRRibs

        The AAM version of Staple’s easy button. Except a little recorded voice says “It’s legal.”

  5. Lanya

    I hope it’s soon *illegal* not to offer paid time off. So many other countries other than the U.S. have laws about this.

  6. Anna

    I believe the only one that needs a caveat is hiring without posting the job. If you are a government contractor, there are rules around those things. Keeping in mind that they may jump through the required hoops while still having a candidate already in mind and still hiring that person.

    1. Xay

      Actually, depending on the nature of the contract, government contractors are not required to list positions before hiring.

      1. Anna

        I’ve worked for many government contractors and many companies that have contracts with the government (not quite the same thing) and so far all of the are required to advertise positions externally as well as internally. That may not be the case for ALL contractors, but for a very large percentage of them it is.

    2. Amy

      But that doesn’t mean it’s illegal for them not to post the job; it means that not posting a job is a violation of their contract.

      Similarly, you could negotiate a contract with your employer that requires them to give you paid time off, or to pay you severance, or to refrain from asking you to handle tulle. But if they then did those things, it wouldn’t be illegal, it would just be a violation of your contract.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Exactly. It’s possible that you could have a contract that says some of these things *are* prohibited. But that’s about what’s in your contract, not what’s legal or illegal.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            But then everything would need a caveat, because you could have a contract saying anything. I assume people with contracts (a small minority of U.S. workers) read their contracts and know what’s in there. And if they don’t, they should.

  7. Ill Legal

    You could have saved yourself a lot of typing if you had done a “No, that’s illegal.” post!

  8. Sue

    I think it would be a lot easier if you just listed what is illegal because it basically seems we have little to no rights. (And I know before anyone says anything we still have the right to leave a job if we do not like it)

      1. Eric

        The right to take home an employee handbook, as it is essentially a contract with the employer (or parts of it are).

        1. Cat

          I’m wondering if that one might actually be protected under labor relations laws, perhaps as a corollary to the fact that you can’t be prevented from discussing your working conditions with your co-workers. Or an employer might be allowed to let you not take their copy of the handbook home, but prohibited from preventing you from copying it. Though it wouldn’t be surprising if it had never been tested one way or another.

        2. Ornery PR

          Actually, if written well, the Handbook is explicitly NOT a contract for anyone in a right-to-work state, and will say so in the first few paragraphs. Many small companies don’t even have handbooks, and I definitely don’t think they should be required by law to provide copies of them. Access to read them if they exist? Absolutely.

        3. RedStateBlues

          So which parts of an employee handbook would be considered a contract or otherwise enforceable in the courts?
          I know of someone who is “required” to provide 60 days notice if they are leaving the job (per the handbook), although the owner never keeps them longer than a week or two after they give notice, and it has a pretty restrictive non-compete clause in it.

        4. SevenSixOne

          I’ve always had to sign a document that says I have read and understand the employee handbook when I get hired and again any time there’s an update, but any employment contract is a separate document.

      2. Mike C.

        I’ll list a few;

        1. A limit to the number of hours per day/week I’m required to work, both consecutively and total. Obvious exemptions for emergency/first responder type folks, but similar laws already take this into account so this is nothing new.

        2. Extended measures taken when working conditions are hazardous, regardless of working inside or out. There’s no reason a cook at McDonalds should be taken to the hospital for heat exhaustion just because the owner is too cheap to fix an A/C. I saw similar issues in my lab when the owner refused to pay for the A/C to get fixed, it was nuts.

        3. Inflation-indexed minimum wage. WA state does this among others.

        4. Proper funding of labor and safety regulatory agencies to ensure that current labor protections are actually enforced in a reasonable manner.

        5. Some scheme to increase transparency in pay between employees. Currently there are almost no way for employees to ensure that they are being paid according to merit rather than issues of protected class.

        6. Required paid sick time. I don’t mind if the employee needs to be there a while before it happens, but it’s a serious public health issue.

        7. Minimum notice period and documentation for work scheduling. Both in terms of shift scheduling (and changes!) and infrequent time.

        8. Limits or overtime pay on extreme overtime with regards to salaried workers. Most of the insane stories I hear about 70+ hour weeks are due to poor planning and unreasonable deadlines.

        9. Better protections for H1-B visa workers. It’s insane to see people work 6-7 days/week with 10+ hour days when their only other option is deportation. Watching this first hand was simply disgusting. The way we treat foreign and child labor in agriculture is also insane.

        1. Anonymous

          All good points but as long as our government is “influenced” by corporate donations, lobbyists and well funded political non-profits that claim to represent the voting public, most of it is just dreaming. Sadly.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Lobbyists would have far less power if people would vote their interests. They have so much power *because* people aren’t more politically active.

        2. Ornery PR

          Ah, your downfall word is “reasonable.” I 100% agree with your sentiment, but lawmakers have yet to effectively legislate and agree on the term “reasonable.” Just look at California where some attempt has been made to accomplish a few of the things on your list. That state is broke as a joke.

        3. EngineerGirl

          (Sigh). I’ve seen every last one of these in my 38 years of work experience. Yes, these are all reasonable and fair and I would support them. And I worked 77 hours last week :(. And yes, it was because the schedule was thoroughly mis-planned.

        4. Anonymous

          None of these are the things listed above, though (except the paid sick leave time, which I agree with). And child labor is illegal so H1-B visas wouldn’t cover that – that requires better enforcement of the laws we already have.

          How would you propose a scheme of “transparency in pay” especially when the meaning of the word “merit” varies from field to field and employer to employer?

          1. Mike C.

            1. There are significant exemptions in child labor laws in agriculture.

            2. The simple answer would be to list everyone’s wages. A more complete answer would be to break down how pay is determined (based on title, experience, education, time, merit scores, and so on). So long as a business is using a concrete rubric to determine wages, then there’s no problem.

      1. Felicia

        You can move to any part of Canada and get all the rights:) Though Ontario is of course the coolest, because I live there. My favourite is that in Canada, at will employment is not a thing, and here, age discrimination applies to all the ages:)

  9. Meredith

    “It’s legal to require your attendance at a weekend event.”

    But the employer may legally have to reasonably accomodate your religious observance.

    1. Jazzy Red

      If this weekend event is paid at time-and-a-half, I’d go without protest, especially if I didn’t have to serve the food.

  10. Plynn

    To be serious for a second – reading this blog has led me to think that maybe one of the reasons that anti-union sentiment is so common is because people think they are protected by all these imaginary laws. I mean, a lot of these things that are legal are also disrespectful of the employee and put onerous demands on them that are not strictly work-related. If you honestly think that it’s illegal for an employer to do all or even some of these things, it stands to reason that you might think unions are unnecessary and just there to suck dues out of you.

    /end seriousness.

    1. MR

      You raise an excellent point and I think this has merit. From what I have observed, the people who are most anti-union either don’t work or have a work situation where they almost never have issue. They generally forget that there are a lot of crappy work situations out there, where better work protections would improve the lives of many, many people.

    2. Anonymous

      I’m a union member, and I do not like it one bit. I’m only a union because where I work, I have to be in it. At the time, it was the only job I could get, and I’m trying to get out of it (finding another job).

      I don’t like the union for several reasons, but none of have to do with the list Alison provides above. First of all, I think the union higher-ups are condescending; the way they write their newsletter sounds like they are talking to children and not adults. Then, there are the rules of seniority. A coworker of mine has been there for quite some time before me, and she gets higher pay and choice of shifts. I can’t ask for higher pay because I have to wait in line behind her and a few others; I can’t get it solely based on my work ethic and merit. I can’t get a choice of shifts because she’s been there longer. She can not be a team member and get away with it; I have to kowtow to her schedule in order to be a team member and continue to hold onto my job.

      Technically closed shops are illegal, thanks to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. But, a CBA is the loophole in it. The CBA makes the above with my coworker legal, hence why you never see me asking Alison how to deal with it. My permanent way of dealing will be to get out of there.

      1. Anonymous

        And one thing – I know seniority does play out in places that aren’t union. You work, you earn more $$ and vacation time. I totally understand that. But in my case, it plays out everyday. For example, this job is fine with me having another job, but once, for a short period of time, schedules overlapped. Instead of being a team player and helping out for that short period of time, she flat-out said no. No one could say anything because she had seniority; if she didn’t want to work my old shift, she didn’t have to. Therefore, I was out of a shift and out of pay. Sure, my job overlapped and everyone was fine with the obvious switch until she said no.

        1. Mike C.

          That’s not a function of a union, rather a function of your specific contract. In many places the seniority issue is only a tie-breaker when other qualifications are equal.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            I don’t think that’s the point at all; it’s that the managers in that organization are constrained in their ability to treat people more fairly and do things to reward and retain good workers because the union contract has seniority controlling so much.

            1. Plynn

              I can see that – sometimes a union can create a dysfunctional workplace, and then make it impossible to rectify it.

              I’m not Woody Guthrie, I just really think that people don’t understand that yes, your employer CAN do that.

            2. Confused

              Not always. At OldJob management used all sorts of loopholes to give shifts/projects to their favorite employees.

              1. QualityControlFreak

                *That is to say, yes, but again, as Mike C. stated, that is not a function of the union, but the contract. Our CBA specifically states that decisions like shifts, promotions, hours, pay and so forth may NOT be based on seniority. Our CBA is renegotiated periodically, and the members vote on the bargaining team as well as whether or not to accept the contract. I’ve worked union and non-unions jobs, and I’ll take union any day.

          2. Anonymous

            Tell me then – why does she just take off from her shifts whenever she pleases without asking for coverage but yet when someone asks her to do for a favor in return, she outright says no? It’s not just me but to the other coworkers too. Don’t judge.

        2. Plynn

          Your coworker sounds un-accommodating and is probably frustrating to work with, but she would probably be the same in any other work environment. And while I agree that the rigidity of your bargaining agreement’s seniority/promotion policies are stifling, at least you know that those are the policies. Often times workplaces run by extremely rigid – yet totally unspoken – rules. At least you are guaranteed the knowledge you need to make decisions will be made available to you.

          1. FRRibs

            I was never a big fan of seniority being the yardstick as it often is in union situations, but it is the simplest way to apportion resources that noone can cry foul about. People spend all day wondering why one person or another has more pay or benefits, but if everyone knows that more time in > any other yardstick, it certainly simplifies things; time on the job is a concrete, measurable statistic that you can’t be subjective about.

            As for unions in general; they aren’t perfect and can work against the general long term intrests of labor, but in situations where one exonomic strata has overbearing control over a lower strata, there is no other way to exert one’s own desires. US labor history illustrates this rather well. We just went through a couple decades of prosperity where they were not needed as much but as the economy contracts and the disparity begins to increase as it does, I am confident they were once again earn their keep.

      2. Elysian

        I believe you are confusing a “closed shop” and a “union shop.”
        Closed shop – must be in union before being hired. illegal.
        Union shop – must join union after hiring. legal.

      3. Kou

        Not liking the issues within a union is different from the type of general anti-union sentiment Plynn is talking about, though.

    3. Mike C.

      One issue I see cropping up is the fact that an employee will see their own benefits and wages cut while those with union protections have their benefits remain. Rather than say, “hey, I should get those back”, many will instead say, “if I can’t have that, then neither should they”.

      It’s like those studies that show most people would rather own a $200k house when everyone else has a $100k house than own a $400k house when everyone else owns a $500k house.

      1. Joey

        Yes. I’ve also seen studies that show people in general will expend much more energy when facing a potential loss than negotiating a bigger gain in another area. It holds pretty true.

    4. RedStateBlues

      @Plynn
      I think you give people too much credit. I think (and have absolutely no facts to back this up) the anti union sentiment comes from people knowing that they in fact, DON’T have those protections, union members often do have those protections, and instead of figuring out what they have to do to get them for themselves, they want them taken away from everyone else.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Hmmm. I don’t think it’s either of those! I think it’s people seeing cases where unions have worked less than ideally (protecting bad workers, blocking managers from rewarding good employees over less good ones, etc.), and concluding (rightly or wrongly, depending on your opinion) that the bad outweighs the good.

        1. Jessica (the celt)

          This is it exactly, Alison. I’m a union fence-sitter (or a situational union person?), because I’ve seen the bad of unions (where they take union dues and fair-share fees but workers get nothing out of the relationship but a reduced paycheck and a bunch of junk mail on whom to vote for in the next election) and the good of unions (where the union listens to and meets with employees and the employer to help), so I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all situation. For me, it has always, always, always depended on the workplace and the union itself. I’m can’t be stuck in a pro-union hole, but I also do not fit in the anti-union hole.

          1. Joey

            That’s a reasonable position. I think its unrealistic to be unconditionally for or against.

            There are plenty of employers that treat workers well where unions just don’t make sense just as there are plenty of crappy employers where a union is the most realistic solution.

        2. FRRibs

          My father was a union official and not at all what many people see unions as. Just like this thread is about unrealistic expectations, there are unrealistic expectations about unions.

          Dad was equally respected and hated; he was an old school hardnosed contract negotiator as well as a shop steward. When he was looking out for the interests of his fellow union members, and interceding in situations where otherwise it would be one worker versus the entire corporation, he fought tooth and nail. But I also learned two important things about “good” unions.

          – Just because you are a member, does not allow you to work less, or break covenant with your employer. He would get involved in the occasional situation where an employee expected him to fight for them when they (the employee) was in the wrong, and he would tell them he would do as much as his duty required of him, but an employer has a right to expect their employees to hold up their part of the relationship. You fought hard to get your contract, but then you made sure you earned it by the quality of your work.

          – Of course unions are going to bargain hard for their members. Management’s job is to bargain hard for the company. A good union will have an understanding of the current labor market and business environment and adapt, rather than try to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. That meant sometimes accepting cuts in pay and benefits in order to keep the company profitable and thus, it’s employees still working. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

        3. Poe

          Child of a labour lawyer weighing in here…my father worked on the management side of labour disputes, and one of the BIGGEST problems with unions protecting “dead weight” workers is that managers are afraid of the union and don’t get enough support. With proper processes and documentation, you absolutely CAN fire a bad worker. The issue is that many, many workplaces do not have a formal system in place (it is just vaguely mentioned in the CBA), managers are not taught how to use the steps to their advantage, and the whole things just collapses into a heap of intertia. Unions are responsible for their members and need to protect them, but management needs to protect the company, even if it means paperwork and standing firm when they fire someone. Some unions abuse the system because their employers haven’t taken the time to learn how to deal with it.

      2. Anonymously Anonymous

        Nope. I work with people who are in unions. I’m more envious of the protection that they have from some of the nonsense we have to deal with. Just recently everyone was called in separately when changes for our contract was affect for the upcoming year. The only negotiation was are you signing or not. We had no clue about what was happening. And thing keep changing from day to day. I don’t think that would have happen if we were in a union. Anyway on the other hand, I see while the union is effective as a whole in some ways in a few ways it may not be as effective for an individual member in others… (agreeing with Anonymous above me)

    5. Anonymous

      I have friends in the teachers’ union and I just don’t get the point. One wasn’t being compensated in regards to her contract and her union rep decided to not bring it up because they feared it would hurt contract negotiations. The employment lawyer at my non-union company would lose her mind if someone was compensated differently than their contract.

      1. Melissa

        That was one example with one employee and one union worker at one company. Some union employees (like employees at every company) are lazy and/or incompetent). Labor unions have been successful in securing many of the things that actually ARE legal (like the 8-hour workday, OSHA, and worker’s compensation) and in many places they do the collective bargaining that gets people decent pay and benefits.

  11. ChristineSW

    Best post of the year!!!

    Although I want to add that while all of the things listed are legal, some of them are just plain Not Nice.

  12. Zahra

    Ack! Ack! “Ado”, not “Adieu”

    “Ado” means noise, fanfare (as in “Much ado about nothing”). “Adieu” means “goodbye”.

    It goes hand in hand with “Hear, hear!”, not “Here, here!”.

      1. Susan

        Donkey shame! That’s awesome and I’ve never seen someone write it out that way.

        I try to give leeway to people when they’ve heard a word or phrase pronounced many times but have never seen the word written down before — because hey, I’ve been there myself.

        Or the alternate — I remember seeing the word “coiffed” soooo many times but never related it to the pronunciation “cwoughed” so I always said it “coy-ffed” and finally got corrected. Hey, now I know!

  13. Amanda

    Are there any situations where it’s legal for an employers to not pay overtime for hourly workers?

    My first full-time summer job didn’t pay any overtime. I was a naive 20 year old, and while it seemed shady (and I would’ve loved the extra pay since I worked between 50 and 70 hours a week), I still thought that there must have been some loophole that allowed them to legally do so. Now I wonder if the loophole was “hire a lot of students and foreigners who don’t know better and won’t make a fuss.”

    1. Emily, admin extraordinaire

      Certain industries are exempt from having to pay hourly workers time-and-a-half for their overtime (I know this because I used to work for a movie theater chain and “motion picture theater employees” are one of those industries, who knows why), and some “seasonal amusement or recreational establishments” are apparently exempt from minimum wage AND overtime requirements, but in general– yes, they probably should have paid you for your overtime.

      1. Amanda

        Thanks for the info. Since my job fell in the “seasonal amusement or recreational establishments” category (lifeguard at a water park), I guess they were being perfectly legal.

    2. SevenSixOne

      “hire a lot of students and foreigners who don’t know any better and won’t make a fuss.”

      YES THIS. I look back on my first few McJobs and I’m horrifed at the blatant labor law violations I didn’t even know about at the time… but it’s not like I would have known how to speak up about it without sounding like a whiny teenager with problems with authority anyway :(

  14. HR ani

    I’d love to hear the one with cleaning up rat poo. We had a similar case with another type of animal dropping that the EE was surprised he was required to clean it up (of course following all Safety & Environmental protocol). Love this!

    1. AdAgencyChick

      The rat poo thing was two days ago — #5 in Alison’s Wednesday-morning post (I think if I post the link here the comment will go under moderation).

    2. Anonymous

      We had this discussion here at work. Though ours was bad I don’t think it made it into a hazmat situation.

  15. Lauren

    I have a “Is this legal question”:

    I recently quit my job. After I put in my two weeks notice, my employer made me utilize my excess vacation days so they wouldn’t have to pay those out to me once I left. Is this legal?

    *I’m not sure if employers are required to pay out vacation days, but mine does. I work in for the state of Virginia.

    1. Employment Lawyer

      Yes, in many states.
      However, most at will employees aren’t required to give a two week notice.
      In a situation where you have accumulated vacation and the employer requires you to stay and use it, then Functionally speaking that amounts to an employer who has laid you off when you gave your notice. You can politely point out that this isn’t great encouragement for other employees, or you can simply leave and demand your pay ASAP.

    1. RG

      How is it “unsafe”? Use proper protection – ie rubber gloves – and you’ll be fine. Gross, maybe. Not the typical office duty, true. But unsafe is a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?

      To be clear – the original post said nothing about quantity. If we’re talking the remains of an infestation, that should probably go to professionally. If you’ve only got a couple of them that keep leaving evidence, just deal with it.

          1. FD

            Rabies has a vaccine, though. Hurts like the dickens, I hear, but it has a vaccine which can be given as a preventative measure to people at high risk for infection (animal control officers, vets), or can be administered after being bitten by an animal which may have been infected.

            1. fposte

              It doesn’t actually hurt more than any other shot any more. I had the post-exposure series, and it’s just a lot of shots and the first batch can’t be in your arm (too much serum) so they go for lower back muscles. The prophylaxis is just a series of arm shots.

              1. FD

                Hm, maybe the person I know who had to have them regularly is just sensitive to that particular vaccine. She always said it was the most painful shots she ever got. (She works with animals so she’s considered a risk group.)

      1. Kathryn T.

        Rat and rodent feces can harbor hantavirus, a life-threatening respiratory ailment with a >50% mortality rate in humans.

        1. FD

          Still, gloves and a thorough washing should help prevent transmission, I should think? It might be illegal if the company refused to provide gloves and a handwashing station, I suppose.

        2. Melissa

          And if that’s the case, leaving it on the floor or exposed in the workplace puts everyone at risk for hantavirus and cleaning it up will put a single employee at no more risk than leaving it the open would.

          1. Kathryn T.

            Cleaning it up is what raises the dust, though. I mean, let’s say it wasn’t poo, but a big pool of human blood — would you really say it was fine to make someone clean that up without appropriate protective gear because it doesn’t put them any more at risk?

            I’m not saying it should be illegal, because it obviously isn’t illegal, but rodent feces really does have some unique health risks associated with it beyond “ew gross.”

            1. QualityControlFreak

              Back when I worked for the (US) government (contractor), only specific employees were authorized to clean up the remains of rat infestations. We had a procedure, and personnel were required to have training and use proper PPE. Not rocket science, just very basic protection from health hazards on the job.

            2. Gjest

              I am fairly sure that it is a legal requirement that your employer must inform you of hazmat/infectious disease/safety risks of your job, too. Someone feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

              So while it may be legal for them to make you clean up rat poo, I think they have to tell you what the risks are (and give you proper training, safety eqp, etc.)

  16. Non american

    Posts like this remind me tht I can’t always follow the advice here. Wish there was a blog like this for other countries.

  17. Yoteach

    Just had this question from someone I know the other day:

    My step-dad just went on an interview in his company to try and get a management position and a raise. They told him he doesn’t even qualify for the job he has now because he doesn’t have a college degree. He’s been doing it for over 10 years! But now they are saying they want to demote him, can they do this? It doesn’t sound right to me!

    I remember Alison saying at some point that yes, they can require a college degree for jobs that didn’t have that requirement before and they can demote you as they wish. It’s all legal. Doesn’t sound right and might not be, but it is legal.

  18. Anonymous

    This is a cross-post, on EHRL as well, sorry! I thought that since you and EHRL are both American, it’s worth the caveat that many of these are illlegal in other areas. I’m speaking from a European / UK perspective. As an example, sharing personal mobile numbers could breach data laws.

    1. Ellie H.

      The personal mobile numbers is the one out of all of these that firmly strikes me as should be illegal. I remember when it was originally discussed but it still really bothers me.

  19. Steve

    I was reading this article at work, and my boss said I couldn’t. Can he tell me what to do like that? That seems illegal!

  20. Jenn-X

    Okay, so you ladies don’t want to write a book, but can you at least write a screen play? I’m thinking an AAM/EHRL joint production would be awesome! “Tempest in a Chocolate Teapot” or something like that. I’d watch that movie. Then I’d make my boss watch it, too…in a Clockwork Orange kind of way, with eyes forced open…

        1. Felicia

          I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month this November and when asked what she wants to do with her life, the main character offers making chocolate tea pots as one of many suggestions , which i put in there entirely because of this place:)

  21. Anon with a name

    Wow, what a list! I think the rat poo one was probably the most crazy (as in, who would think that’s actually illegal?) . Three things:

    1) Awesome list is awesome! I wish each one had a link to the post in question though; now I want to read the whole story!

    2) “It’s legal for HR to forward your confidential emails to other people.” This one confuses me a tiny bit. If it can be sent along to other people, then it wasn’t confidential in the first place, right? I get the “HR sharing your emails is legal” part, but it just seems that they aren’t confidential in that case.

    3) “It’s legal to ask someone if they speak English.” I can’t believe someone asked this, either! How does this even come up? Who begins an interview with “So do you speak English?” Wouldn’t beginning with “Tell me a little bit about yourself” get you the answer to that question (that is, if they understand and can answer you, they speak English… And if they don’t, they can’t?)

    Awesome list! If you remember any more you should keep adding to it :)

    1. FD

      I suppose it would make sense if the interview isn’t in English? That’s the only thing I can come up with.

      1. Anon with a name

        I guess that makes sense, though 1) If you’re just asking if someone is bilingual in a language that would be useful to your business, why would anyone think that’s a bad question? (nonetheless illegal!) and 2) I was assuming that since AAM is in English, probably most queries were as well (and so the LW must either speak English or have someone who does translate.) But yeah… That’s about the only way I can see the question making sense at all, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate/illegal!

      2. Elysian

        It might have been a poorly phrased way of trying to ask if English was the speaker’s native language or if they were fully fluent, maybe, and as opposed to conversational. I don’t know if that makes it better, but it’s possible.

      1. Ruffingit

        Actually, this also happens a lot here in Texas where people may be here legally (that is, they married an American for example), but they are from Mexico and speak Spanish. Many job ads for nannies and housekeepers here specify that the person must speak English so I can see how this could come up and not be a racist thing. In some places here in Texas, you cannot assume a person speaks English.

        1. Cat

          Or you could just have a normal conversation with the person. If they don’t speak English, you’ll figure out approximately ten seconds later than if you didn’t ask. Having a hard time to think of a reason for asking that other than “wants to show person of color that they don’t belong.”

          1. HR YesItsLegal

            Cat, I think your looking at this through rose colored reading glasses. Please correct me if I’m wrong but my guess is your not working within the manufacturing or factory settings.

            I work in the commercial seafood industry where at least 90% of the process workforce is from origins outside the U.S.

            It’s seasonal employment on a massive scale for both land based plants and vessels at-sea. Hiring is not possible in the typical office sense.

            This question is very necessary for safety reasons. If someone doesn’t speak English it’s not necessarily a no-hire but careful placement where it wont compromise employee safety.

            1. Chinook

              Another position that should have a good grasp of English is whomever answers your switchboard. I still feel bad about the temp we sent home because her English skills were not professional enough to represent the firm. The office manager actually asked me to have a quick conversation with her to confirm her gut reaction (I once had to place ESL students in the appropriate level class and my boss remembered this from my resume). The woman may have great office skills but her comprehensive and pronunciation skills were low enough that they could have frustrated our clients (especially those who are also ESL but from a different language).

              I blame the agency, though, because they knew the job expectations and failed to meet them that day.

              1. HR YesItsLegal

                We have many bilingual supervisors, we also have over 120 languages represented in our workplace.

          2. bearing

            How about a policy that they ask everyone the exact same set of interview questions? So, for example, every candidate is asked something along the lines of “how well do you speak English?” — whether or not they *look* superficially like the sort of person who might not be a fluent English speaker.

          3. Ruffingit

            Thing is, the person may speak some English, but not well. They may understand English 100%, but not speak it well. Any number of things could be true and it’s more helpful to ask about their language skills than to assume based on conversation. And, depending on the situation, they may or may not be able to do the job. They can understand some, but not all? They can understand all, but not speak it well? Those are all things that can change whether or not they can do certain jobs and I’d much rather someone tell me what their situation is than have me guess from the conversation.

            1. Cat

              Any conversation you have with a prospective employee should be extensive enough to get a reasonable grasp of their English fluency. If they need to be able to discuss particular technical issues in English, discuss those with them. Asking “Do you speak English?” is going to get you a much less complete picture than actually having a conversation because, well, anyone who knows that one phrase can answer “yes.”

              That said, fine, if you ask every. single. candidate who comes in the door whether they speak English, then go right ahead. If you’re only asking people who “look” like they might not, then that’s pretty racist.

      2. Mena

        Not at all; communication is often a key job requirement. Would it make sense to hire flight attendants that do not speak English and cannot give instructions during an emergency? It doesn’t make the airline racist in the least.

        1. Cat

          It’s not racist to exclude people from jobs when they don’t have the skills. That’s not what we’re discussing.

  22. KC

    The best part of this for me was reading through the list and going “Oh YEAH…I remember that one!” Ask an Manager and Evil HR Lady were my go-to blogs during and since college. :)

  23. Anonymously Anonymous

    Ha! A few day ago I was talking with a co-worker about whether it’s legal for an employer to force you to take a lunch break even though state law doesn’t require it. After going back in forth for a few minutes she finally had the aha moment! Suddenly, *I* felt like a guru!

    1. Jazzy Red

      Walmart *requires* associates to take lunch breaks, office workers and store workers alike. There were class actions suits about this very thing, which led to the rule. Associates are also not allowed to do any work at all before they clock in or after they clock out (my manager wouldn’t let me help clear a jam in the copier because I was on my way home and had clocked out).

      It may not be required by law, but if you work for Walmart, it’s a zero tolerance policy.

    1. HR YesItsLegal

      That would be a very simple flow chart.

      Is it legal ….?
      Ask- Does that policy, behavior, action, employment status, etc violate or based upon a protected class, ie race, creed, color, age (over 40) religion, sex, (insert whatever state or local ordinance added) etc?

      Yes? It’s not legal
      No? Legal*

      *except in California

  24. Annie O'Nymous

    I’d love to see a corresponding list of what is legal for EMPLOYEES to do.
    Seems like employers (like landlords) hold most of the cards.

  25. Tara T.

    If someone is working in a place that has rats, they should call OSHA and report it! Rats carry diseases! That is definitely an unsafe workplace! I like what RG wrote on Oct. 25: “You have the ability to quit your employment at any time and fine better work. It’s your job as an employee to vote with your feet (or unionize!) if you think there is something that needs change.” Sadly, too many employees put up with bosses who are total jerks, and end up in arguments with their bosses, and then are FIRED before they manage to leave, because they did not get out in time. Employees in bad situations need to run for the door and get out as soon as they can line up a new job somewhere else.

  26. Tara T.

    And even worse! The employees who are FIRED because they did not get out of their abusive workplace in time, and got into arguments with the boss who was treating them unfairly and acting like a jerk, are then accused of “not getting along with people.” Because future employers think it was always the EMPLOYEE’S fault!

  27. Tiffany

    Perhaps this has been noted – I didn’t read every comment. But in a union setting, some of the above may be disallowed by a collective bargaining agreement.

  28. Brad

    Wow this list sounds like it was created by a manager who hates employees and hates life in general. You know the self-loathing do nothing kind who revile in their tiny bit of power. You cannot yell at your employees. This is simple harassment. Saying so is extremely unprofessional and dangerous to the anger-addicted manager. A manager who forces their employee to handle toxic and dangerous substances outside of their job title under the presumption they will be terminated if they disobey is also breaking the law. I’m writing this so that horrible managers reading up on new ways to be horrible to their employees might stop and think. You are not a god. You have very real rules.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Um, it’s not hateful to explain what the law does and doesn’t require. It’s actually extremely pro-employee to make sure that people have an accurate understanding of workplace law so that they can make good decisions for themselves.

  29. employment

    Have you notice how many things are “legal” for you boss, but not for you?

    Anyway, as everything, it is legal based on the circumstances. Most of the ideas provided will be covered under the “Hostile Work Environment”.

    Good Luck

  30. Raven

    I recently quit my job at a restaurant because of the way the owner would scream at me and now she is refusing to give me my last pay check unless I dry clean and return the uniform shirt I was provided at the beginning on witch I paid for I don’t mind returning the shirt but I’m not paying to have it dry cleaned

  31. Todd

    This may be a new one:
    Many of us have a corporate credit card in our name as well as the corporations. We make expense reports periodically. If an expense report isn’t turned in or has been rejected for any reason, the company will not pay the bill. If the bill doesn’t get paid on time, the credit card company treats it like a delinquent payment; it directly reflects negatively on my personal credit score.

    I don’t remember signing anything that authorized this. Does it matter? Is it legal one way or another?

  32. Brandi

    So, I work at a call center in CO. Frequently, we have been left alone for upwards of 6 hours without a supervisor in the department I work in. This is partly due to the department being short a supervisor. Is it legal for them to leave us without a supervisor when the HR department has gone home?

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