A reader writes:
I have been working for the past seven years for a nonprofit in Florida. We got a notification this morning that we had to send an email to HR revealing any other employment we have as well as if we belong to any clubs or organizations, including church. They said this information is to be placed in our HR file.
Is this legal for the employer to gather this information? The demand was followed up with “if you don’t like it, you don’t have to work here anymore.”
My hunch here was the act of asking about memberships in outside organizations doesn’t itself violate any laws, but it’s incredibly unwise from both a management standpoint and a legal standpoint: It’s bad management because it’s going to make employees really uncomfortable if they don’t care to reveal private affiliations, and it’s legally sketchy because if it were combined with additional information, it could look like discrimination or even an attempt at union-busting (depending on the organizations someone belongs to).
Certainly it isn’t unreasonable for an employer to ask if you have a second job, and require you to disclose it. The reason for this would be to make sure there isn’t a conflict of interest and that you aren’t doing your second job on company time. When it gets into organizations, they may have a legitimate reason such as trying to show that their employees are involved in the community or concern about conflict of interest or doing the outside activities on company time. I’d say this inquiry is pretty invasive, but may not cross the line.
Asking about churches, though, is something I think could cross into illegal territory. The fact of the question being asked isn’t necessarily an instant lawsuit, but what they do with the information could be. I think it’s really stupid for them to ask. For instance, if they find out you’re a Wiccan, an atheist, or a Mormon and then they deny you a promotion, discipline you, or fire you, you’ll have a good argument that you were subjected to religious discrimination.
Going back to organizations, what if you’re a member of a cancer survivor group or a support group for people with a particular disability? Or you go to AA? Or maybe you belong to a group for people with a particular genetic defect, of a specific ethnicity or other protected category. If they take adverse action against you after you disclose this information, you might have a discrimination claim.
Overall, I think the organizations and church membership questions are stupid on the employer’s part but asking isn’t an instant lawsuit. What they do with the information, on the other hand, could give you ammunition for a discrimination suit down the line.
So, where does that leave you, letter-writer?
Personally, I’d reveal only what you’re comfortable with. Not about any second job — as Donna points out, they can have legitimate reasons for asking that, and it’s reasonable to require you to disclose that. But memberships in various organizations? I don’t think it’s any of their business, it’s opening the door to potential discrimination down the road, and well … maybe you have an awfully bad memory the day you fill out that form.
My bigger concern is actually their statement that if you don’t like it, you can find another job. That’s not the way a reasonable or well-managed organization communicates with employees, and unless there’s way more context to that conversation that wasn’t shared here, that’s a huge red flag. Good employers are as transparent as they can be, particularly when making requests that could be viewed as invasive or odd. Slapping someone down in a such a nasty way for asking what I assume was a reasonable question posed in a reasonable way — that’s a sign of deeper trouble.