10 workplace myths, busted

For a place that we spend so much time in, there are a surprising number of myths about the workplace — from who HR is there to serve to how salaries are set, and much more. Here are 10 of the most common myths about work life, debunked.

1. Myth: If your boss is unfair or hostile, you might have legal recourse.

Fact: It’s not illegal for your boss to be unfair or a jerk. It’s unwise, but it’s not illegal. The exception to this: If your boss is being a jerk to you because of your race, gender, religion, or other protected class, then you do have legal options. But most jerky bosses act like jerks because that’s just the way they are, and that’s legal.

2. Myth: The First Amendment protects your ability to say what you want at work.

Fact: The First Amendment prevents the government from restricting your speech, but not a private employer. In most states, an employer can fire you for what you say at work, or even outside of work. (An exception to this is if you’re organizing coworkers about wages or working conditions.)

3. Myth: HR’s main function is to help employees.

Fact: HR is there to serve the needs of the business; its loyalty and responsibilities are to the employer. In some cases, that means helping out employees – because it’s in the best interests of the employer to retain great employees, hear about and address bad managers, stop legal problems before they explode, and so forth. But plenty of other times, what’s best for the employer is not what’s best for the employee, and the best interests of the employer will always win out.

4. Myth: HR has to keep things confidential if you request it.

Fact: HR reps aren’t doctors or priests; you shouldn’t assume confidentiality when talking to them. If an HR rep hears information that she judges needs to be shared or used to address a situation, her job obligates her to do that. A parallel: Imagine you’re a computer programmer and you learn there’s a serious bug in the software you’re working on. If you do nothing, you’d be being negligent and not doing your job. It’s the same thing with HR.

Now, in some cases, you can talk to HR in confidence if you explicitly work out an understanding of confidentiality before you share. But there are also cases where HR is required to report things (such as concerns about harassment or illegal behavior), no matter how vehemently the employee requests confidentiality.

5. Myth: An employer needs to warn you or at least give you a reason before firing you.

Fact: Unless you have an employment contract (which most employees in the U.S. don’t), you’re considered an at-will employee. That means that your employer can fire you at any time, without warning, for any reason or no reason at all. Your boss can fire you because she doesn’t like your laugh or the color of your tie. The only exceptions: You can’t be fired if the reason for your firing is your race, religion, sex, national origin, or membership in another legally protected class.

6. Myth: You can’t get unemployment benefits if you’re fired.

Fact: People often think that only laid-off employees are eligible for unemployment benefits. But in most states, fired employees can collect too, as long as they weren’t fired for intentional misconduct. (In other words, being fired for poor performance won’t generally make you ineligible.)

7. Myth: Employers can’t give references beyond just confirming your title and dates of employment.

Fact: Giving detailed, honest references is legal. It’s true that some companies, in an effort to avoid the headache of nuisance lawsuits, have implemented policies that they’ll only confirm dates of employment and title. As a result, many people have come to believe that it’s actually illegal to give a bad reference. But corporate policies aren’t the law. They’re often not even followed by the companies that have them. It’s both legal and common for employers to give detailed references – and a surprising number of references are either lukewarm or bad.

8. Myth: Your employer can’t require you to attend work-related events outside of regular work hours.

Fact: Whether it’s a client dinner or a training class, your employer can indeed require you to attend events outside of your usual work hours.

9. Myth: If you disagree with a performance review, you should refuse to sign it.

Fact: Signing a performance review doesn’t mean you agree with it; you’re simply indicating that you received it. (And if you’re uncertain about that, you can always voice your disagreement and write, “Signing to acknowledge receipt only.”)  Refusing to sign has no practical purpose and will just get you labeled as adversarial and difficult.

10. Myth: Salaries are set fairly.

Fact: A coworker doing the same job as you might make more or less than you for doing the same work. Salaries vary for all sorts of reasons: one person was a better negotiator than the other when first being hired, or the job market was tighter when she was hired, or she has a particular degree or skill set that the company rewards, or the budget for her department is different than yours, or her boss is a nightmare and the company pays people working for him a premium.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 5 comments… read them below }

  1. a.b.*

    I had to shake my fist at the comment about pronouns. Wouldn’t have happened if you only used “he”. Friggin’ trolls.

    I’m glad to say I’ve been reading this blog long enough to not be surprised by any of this advice, though that’s not to say if I was in one of those situations I wouldn’t wonder if I was an exception..

  2. GeekChic*

    While I grant that AAM advises from a US perspective I should note that some of these aren’t myths in all places in North America (I can think of examples for #1 and #5).

    As for #7, my experience is that it’s quite common for companies to simply confirm titles and dates of employment than give an actual reference (and be quite ruthless in enforcing that policy with their managers).

    1. fposte*

      Right, but she says that–she’s not saying it’s never policy. It isn’t, however, law, and many people think that it is.

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