can my boss really do that?

If you’ve ever witnessed your boss doing something that seems unfair to you or a coworker, you might have wondered, “Can they really do that?” They don’t teach workplace law in school, and so collectively, Americans tend to have a lack of understanding about what employers can and can’t do where employees are concerned.

Here are some questions you might wonder about.

1. My boss told my coworkers what my salary is! Can she do that?

Answer: Yes. No law requires that your salary information be confidential, and your employer is allowed to share it with others if they wish to. In fact, some companies share everyone’s salary as a matter of course (and some people argue that doing so helps combat pay discrimination)

2. Can my boss tell me that I can’t discuss my salary with my coworkers?

Answer: No. Despite the fact that many employers have policies that attempt to ban these discussions, the National Labor Relations Act makes it illegal for employers to prohibit employees from discussing wages amongst themselves.

3. My boss said that I can’t take the day I requested off work, even though I have enough vacation time stored up to do it. Can he do that?

Answer: Yes. While your vacation time is part of your benefits package, your employer retains the right to approve or deny specific leave requests. That’s because managers sometimes need to deny time off if it would leave your department short-staffed or cause problems during an especially busy time.

4. My manager told me that I have to stop teasing a coworker about politics. Doesn’t that violate my right to free speech?

Answer: The First Amendment prevents the government from restricting your speech – but private employers are still free to regulate employees’ speech. (One important exception to this is that employers cannot interfere with employees who are discussing wages or working conditions with their coworkers, as in #2 above.)

5. Can my boss deduct money from my paycheck for doing a bad job?

Answer: No, your employer cannot dock your salary for poor performance. Your employer agreed to pay you a certain salary when you accepted the job, and that wage cannot be changed retroactively as punishment or for any other reason. However, your employer can change your pay going forward, after warning you of the change and giving you a chance to decline to do the work at the new wage – but can’t simply dock your pay when you mess up.

6. Can my boss give me a bad reference when I’m looking for a job?

Answer: It’s legal for an employer to give a negative reference, as long as it’s factually accurate. It’s true that some companies, in an effort to avoid the headache of nuisance lawsuits, have implemented policies that they will 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 (and often aren’t even followed by the companies that have them).

7. My boss changed my job description and says that I have to do work that’s dramatically different from what I was hired to do. Is that allowed?

Answer: Your employer can change your job description at any time, or direct you do work other than what you were hired for. The only time this wouldn’t be true is if you had a contract that spelled out the work you were signing on for – but most U.S. workers don’t have contracts and instead are subject to “at will” employment, which allows your employer to change the terms of your employment at any time.

8. Can my manager bully me, single me out for poor treatment, yell at me, or otherwise mistreat me?

Answer: Bullying or being a jerk is bad management, but it’s not illegal. However, if your manager is treating you differently because of your race, sex, religion, or other protected class, then you do have legal protection; that would violate federal anti-discrimination laws. But if your manager is just a jerk because she doesn’t like you or is a hostile person generally, that’s not against the law.

9. I complained to HR about my boss and asked them to keep it confidential, but they told my boss. Is that legal?

Answer: Yes. HR isn’t obligated to keep what you tell them confidential, even if you request their discretion. HR staffers aren’t doctors or priests, and you shouldn’t assume confidentiality when talking to them. If they hear information that they decide needs to be shared or used to address a problem, their job obligates them to do that.

10. I gave two weeks notice at work, and my boss told me to just leave now. Do they still have to pay me for those two weeks?

Answer: A smart employer would still pay you for those two weeks, since otherwise they’re signaling to other employees that they too will lose money if they give notice rather than quitting on the spot. But that’s up to your employer – no law requires them to pay you for time you didn’t work, even though you wanted to work out those final two weeks.

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

{ 131 comments… read them below }

  1. CanadianWriter*

    My college program had a few courses about workplace law, but a lot of the laws aren’t enforced so the knowledge doesn’t do me much good.

    1. Zahra*

      Well, you can force an employer to respect the law (through a lawsuit or a complaint to the appropriate authority)… but there’s always the fear of being black-listed because of the reference they would give about you.

  2. Poohbear McGriddles*

    There is so much misinformation out there, I think sometimes employers aren’t even aware of what the law permits.

  3. AMG*

    #8 was an eye opener for ome (sadly, I found this out the hard way). You boss can single out one particular person, several people, or pretty much everyone for no particular reason. That boss can be as rude, nasty, underhanded and unfair as they want as long as they are not targeting a protected class. I always thought they had to trat everyone mostly the same–nope!

    1. Judy*

      And apparently, the standards of “targeting a protected class” are pretty high. We had a manager brought in to a group that is my main internal customer. The group was 4 female and 6 male engineers, which is nearly unheard of in engineering. 2 years later when he was promoted, the group had only one woman engineer left, between a transfer to another group, a firing and someone who left to another company. The transfer to another group was forced, he and HR gave a choice of transfer or firing. That person filed a claim, and it was denied. Apparently he wasn’t targeting the engineers because they were women.

      1. Judy*

        I would say it was an internal claim not one to the government, but HR said there was no cause for this.

        He’s moved on to another department, and the women engineers in that department are furiously looking for jobs.

        1. Pennalynn Lott*

          I once had a sales manager like that. After my manager quit to go to another company, my team got put under another existing manager. I was the only woman and was treated like crap. (Boss would fly into town and take all the men in the office out to a steak dinner and a strip club, in just one example). I asked around the company, and this manager had a reputation for (A) getting rid of the women he inherited and (B) never hiring women. HR said it was his perogative to create the sales teams he wanted, so I quit and followed my old boss to a new company.

          1. Kay*

            Wow, that sucks!

            Slightly off topic – Love your alias. Gilmore Girls was always a favorite at my house :-)

          2. anon-2*

            Pennalynn – are there no intimidation/hostile workplace clauses in your personnel policies?

    2. Erin*

      Bullying is still against the law where I live. You’d have to prove it and be willing to take the consequences, but your boss just cannot do some things.
      Rudeness, profanity, certain types of questions, basically anything not directly connected with the work itself can be put in there.
      Unfortunately, the law isn’t enforced as it should be because people are too afraid to lose their jobs (present or future), but at least if someone wants to try it, it is there. I think it does keep many employers in check, it’s not as bad as it could be.

    3. anon-2*

      Still – if you’re a manager – BE CAREFUL.

      If your company has anti-bullying / anti-hostility clauses in their employee code of conduct that you probably signed off on — you COULD get sued.

      Violating a published code of conduct or employee procedures won’t land you in jail, but if the company chooses to ignore, selectively enforce, or openly flout its own documented procedures – there COULD be legal (civil) trouble, not just for the company but for the personnel engaging in it.

      Also, anti-bullying clauses not only exist in many companies’ codes of conduct, as well as union contracts, and anti-bullying legislation is pending in some states.

      So , if you’re a manager, and want to engage in bullying and intimidation –

      a) check with your HR department, read your employee or management handbook. If such policies are prohibited, then, you might want to use other means of motivation.

      (I wouldn’t recommend calling HR and saying “can I bully Freddie? I want to get rid of him.”)

      b) check your local laws.

      c) if YOU violate policy – YOU’RE the one who will be carrying your box of belongings out the door, not Freddie.

  4. AdAgencyChick*

    Re: #3 — as a boss, a PET FREAKING PEEVE of mine is people who don’t plan their PTO, then look at their allotment right around Thanksgiving, and then go, “OMG, I have 20 days left! Can I just take the entire month of December off?”

    I love vacation and I love using all of my vacation. I also love when my direct reports get to use all of theirs. But I WILL say no to you if you have a huge balance of days simply because you didn’t think to use any earlier in the year. December is usually a busy time at agencies (clients trying to spend any unused budget before the end of the year), and I can’t handle that if the place is a ghost town because everyone’s taking PTO.

    Plan your PTO and nobody gets hurt :)

    1. Michele*

      Along with this are the people that just book their trip without making sure the dates will work. I had a new employee pull that over Memorial Day weekend . She actually thought well I have vacation time that I can use whenever I want. Actually no you don’t. Fortunately, it was a somewhat slower time in the office and the start of summer Fridays. I wanted to be a total butthead and tell her she had to reschedule her flights but I knew she wouldn’t last at our company within the first 30 days.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        I had someone do that during a vacation blackout period. There are six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall that are blackout vacation due to busy season. We can squeeze out a few days here and there for folks who have urgent needs like out-of-town weddings, but it’s blackout and well publicized/known. All hands on deck, no special snowflakes.

        Two weeks before she tells (not asks, tells) her manager that she will be out x week. Manager says absolutely not, employee says, but I have to and appeals to me thinking that “But I’ve already paid for the cruise!” was somehow logic that would sway me. I told her no but she didn’t seem to hear it.

        Friday before that week I sat her down and said, Glenda if you do not show up Monday morning, you are fired. She says, well then I quit, and I think, hey that saved me severance and unemployment didn’t it.

        (It was her first job and from the number of times she quoted her fiancee in the discussion I think she was getting/following some truly bad advice from him in the whole set up. Hopefully he paid her bills for her also.)

    2. A Bug!*

      Thanks for the reminder! I plan my days off well in advance but I’m not as good at ensuring that they’re all used up before my hire date.

    3. Mike C.*

      Additionally, if there’s no reason to take all (or most) of it at once (like finance folks need to for regulatory reasons), your company should either offer to buy time back at cost, or just pay out time over the limit.

      The limit is there to limit liability, so if it’s paid out right away then the liability is gone for no additional cost, and you gain the benefit of folks not doing exactly what you’re complaining about.

    4. Rebecca*

      As an employee, my huge pet peeve is trying to plan time off, but my boss won’t approve it, and I can’t make plans. I’ve had to approach her the day before a scheduled day off and ask “is it OK or not” because she never replied to my request. So frustrating.

      1. KellyK*

        That is awful. If they want you to plan in advance, they really need to hold up their end of the deal. (I understand that if I ask for vacation six months out, my boss might not know if they can okay it yet, but at least *say* that.)

      2. Liane*

        Yes, that is annoying. Especially when the company’s procedures make it easy to approve/disapprove leave requests, and to always know how much time they have to do so.
        At MyJob, we submit our requests through the intranet. Weekly schedules show up 3 weeks ahead on the computer, so you have to make requests at least 3 weeks before the beginning of the week you’ll be taking off. To approve/disapprove, all a manager has to do is log in–on the same system we use for everything, with their same username & password–and click on the option.
        Still, recently, we have a lot of people who put in for time off weeks before the cutoff, but don’t get an answer until just before the schedule is finalized.
        I recently had a day off that wasn’t approved until after the schedule was up. I noticed I was on for that day when the schedule came down, but decided not to say anything only because my plans had changed. Then, one of the managers apparently noticed the request, OK’d it and removed me from the shift, which was nice to do. :)

    5. Sunflower*

      I will never understand people who do that. I don’t take any time off at the beginning of the year because I like to have the time in case something comes up but I also know I plan on using a good amount of it over the summer when we’re slow. Once end of July/August hits, I start thinking about how I’m going to use the rest of it. December is a very busy time for us as well and I’m not sure why people think they are entitled to take off extended time during the busiest time of the year.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        We do fiscal year end in June, and they only let us roll over a certain amount of PTO, so at the end of the FY you have people frantically taking weeks off to use up their time. I have to take some myself.

        I wish I could roll over more; I won’t be able to take any between year-end and my autumn trip. :(

      2. BeenThere*

        I don’t take leave during the first three months of the year because the weather is terrible across the US, particularly this last year. We are still having 60 degree days in Texas.

    6. Not an IT Guy*

      I once had a debate with a coworker regarding end of year PTO…He was convinced that it was illegal to deny you use of your time due to EEOC regulations whereas my argument was that employees have no rights and can lose their jobs for even asking for time off.

      1. LBK*

        Has he actually read any EEOC regulations? I don’t think any of them even mention vacation time, at least not any that I can think of offhand (other than the usual protected class discrimination stuff).

      2. Anonymous*


        Employees have no rights.

        Any discussion about employee rights is purely academic. Any laws that protect them are toothless.

        Any attempt by an employee to assert any supposed rights can be easily met with: “So, sue me. If you do, you will be immediately fired. Any prospective employer who calls for reference will be told that we are in litigation with this employee and cannot comment. Who do think will hire you after getting this kind of tidbit? Meanwhile, our legal department will drag it out as long as we possibly can and you will have no way of supporting yourself while we do. So, do you want continue talking about any of your rights?”

        I think employers know it very well. This is why we read some of the horror stories on this blog.

      3. Annie O*

        Yeah, the EEOC has nothing to do with this. Perhaps your co-worker was talking about state laws? I was shocked to discover that my current state actually treats PTO as compensation, which means that PTO cannot expire and it must be paid out upon termination. Maybe the co-worker is familiar with a similar state law? Maybe California or some other state actually requires employers to grant PTO requests?

    7. dustycrown*

      And a freaking pet peeve of mine is managers who would prefer you never use your vacation time. There’s never a “perfect” time for someone to be gone, so there’s always going to have to be some sort of accommodation. The “unwritten rule” (strictly enforced) where I used to work is that you could NEVER take a week off at a time, you could possibly take TWO days in a row if you were willing to justify it to their satisfaction and pay the price when you got back, but they would prefer you used your vacation days ONE AT A TIME. And even then, well, wouldn’t it be easier for everyone if you just came to work and saved your activities for the weekend? Ridiculous. If you really don’t want people taking vacation, then just don’t offer it. It isn’t a legit employee benefit if it just accumulates on the books.

  5. Jax*

    #10 – I gave a month notice at my work and was told to leave after 1 week. In Pennsylvania I was able to turn that into unemployment, and I won! Maybe that’s a law that depends on your state?

    1. Jerry Vandesic*

      A valid unemployment claim counts against the employer, and can result in an increase in unemployment insurance rates. As a result, it might cost the employer more to get rid of the person early rather than letting them finish out their two weeks.

    2. LQ*

      It will depend on your state but many states will let you collect in between (usually with a week you don’t get paid but not always) when you gave 2 weeks/more notice and when you start the new job. And I say always always collect those weeks if you can. Your employer made that decision.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Those are two different things — unemployment functions under different rules. The fact that you can get unemployment doesn’t connect to whether something was legal or not.

  6. Jen*

    People have very little understanding of employment law. I remember when I was pregnant and my employer was doing layoffs I had so many people say “Well, you’ll be safe, it’s illegal to fire a pregnant woman.” Nope – it’s only illegal to fire me because I’m pregnant but if I’m one of 70 people losing their job due to the budget, they are perfectly within their rights to do that.

    1. Sascha*

      Or just the law in general. I overheard someone the other day saying in all honesty that such and such “must be illegal,” it was like bad customer service or something. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s illegal!

        1. Lamington*

          my law school professor told us a story that his former boss will tell clients: “they can sue you for anything, even for red hair.” And he was being serious :/

        2. anon-2*

          Well, let’s start by reading your company’s employee handbook — did management violate any policies there? Read the management websites – which all say “if you do a firing or disciplinary action, follow your company’s established policies and procedures”…

          Also – insisting that YOU do something illegal is illegal…

      1. Collarbone High*

        That must explain people who call 911 over things like an incorrect drive-through order.

      2. Ruffingit*

        As a former lawyer, I’ve heard it all when it comes to “But that’s illegal isn’t it??” and “Well such and such is the law…” UH no, no it’s not. I don’t even bother correcting people anymore because many of them refuse to listen. The facts do not sway their opinion one bit.

        1. Sascha*

          Next open thread: weirdest questions received by lawyers.

          I’m just interested in hearing weirdest questions received by any field, really.

    2. hayling*

      Yeah I had a pregnant coworker who was not performing well (and it was really obvious to everyone, and she had been behaving badly before the pregnancy). She wasn’t hitting her numbers, she was rude to her boss, and went against what the boss instructed her to do. She was absolutely shocked that she was fired.

      1. KJR*

        Yet another great reason to address performance problems immediately rather than putting them off “until a better time.”

    3. Bryan*

      Exactly. I see so many article “questions that are illegal to ask in an interview.” They’re not illegal, just illegal to discriminate based on the answers so even bad interviews don’t typically ask them.

      I was co-interviewing a candidate and the other interviewer was sharing how awesome our health insurance was (I miss it :'( ), and goes, are you married or do you have kids? I wonder what the person outside who heard me scream no don’t answer thought.

    4. OriginalYup*

      I think a lot of confusion results from conflating law with company policy. “We’re not allowed to do X” becomes “X is never allowed” becomes “X is illegal.” One of my first full-time jobs was in a unionized manufacturing facility, and people spoke about certain things (payroll and overtime, promotion, disciplinary action) as though they were the law of the land rather than specifically tied to the union contracts. I didn’t fully realize this until my next job, which was in a totally different field.

    5. Jennifer*

      As long as they come up with some other excuse, they can do whatever they want.

      Really, the entire point of being a boss (or rule of thumb to these questions) is that you can do almost whatever you want to anybody.

  7. Bryan*

    I’m really glad that I’m a reader of this blog and that I learned so many of these early in my career. I think I would have figured them out eventually but some are so widely portrayed it took a while to overcome. What do you mean HR doesn’t have confidentiality like doctors and lawyers.

    1. A Teacher*

      Certain types of jobs (i.e. Health care and education) have laws that protect confidentiality as long as there is no “imminent threat to health” so as an athletic trainer and under my states practice act along with federal law, I am required to follow HIPAA. As a teacher at both the high school level and an adjunct at a college, I am required to follow FERPA. Similar in purpose but two different laws.

      1. Bryan*

        I know of HIPAA and FERPA, I was saying how many people think that HR has it’s similar law and it’s often portrayed that way in TV.

    2. Sunflower*

      Yea like HR isn’t your therapist and doesn’t work for YOU- they work for the company and their job is to do what is best for the company. People seem to think HR is like your friend you tell secrets to. Sure in your friendships you probably want to keep some secrets to keep the peace but it doesn’t work like that in the work place

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Yup. A lot of people think, “I’m bringing up a problem to HR, therefore they will help me solve it.”

        Nope. You bring a problem to HR, HR will help the company solve *its* problem, not necessarily help you solve yours. They’re perfectly capable of listening to you, deciding the problem is *you*, and alerting your manager (or worse). Or, they could simply decide things need to be investigated further, which may reveal information you didn’t want revealed to parties you didn’t want knowing it.

        1. KJR*

          Sounds like you’ve had some negatives experiences with HR people. That’s unfortunate, and I wish I could undo that for you. A really good HR person will often be able to help the employee while doing their job as an employee/representative of the company. It doesn’t always have to be an “either/or.” This takes a lot of experience and skill, as well as the ability to use discretion and tact, but it can be done. And when it can’t, being honest and upfront with the employee often works as well. There’s really no one approach that works perfectly for every situation. Remember, part of many HR professionals’ jobs is to retain employees. We want good people to stay, and alienating them is not the way to do it.

          1. Bea W*

            Sometimes hands really are tied though. There’s only so much HR can do when senior management is toxic and dysfunctional. At that point it can be less about truly protecting company interests and more about protecting your own job. HR at my last workplace was actually very approachable and helpful with many issues, including supporting me when an ex started harrassing me at work, but when it came to the outrageous behavior of certain senior managers it was totally beyond their control.

        2. Bea W*

          Yes found this out the hard way (is there any other reason to find this out)? This is why we need unions. Bosses have HR and company lawyers to back them up. Unless there is blatent discrimination, sexual harrassment, or government labor law violations your average employee is up Shht’s Creek without a paddle. You have to rely entirely on good will and general competence.

          1. anon-2*

            “Unless there is blatent discrimination, sexual harrassment, or government labor law violations your average employee is up Shht’s Cr…”

            Or a violation of a published policy & procedure manual – they didn’t go by “the book”. Again – not a violation of criminal law, but a blatant disregard of published HR processes involving discipline and terminations can get you sued.

            Also terminating an employee because he/she refuses to work under dangerous conditions, or he/she is asked to do something illegal and refuses, or is a whistleblower.

  8. Adam*

    #1: I have a good friend who works for a small private mechanical engineering firm. How they conduct yearly raises (I think just for the engineers, not office staff) is by posting EVERYBODY’S salary for public view. You then make a case for a pay increase by explaining to the big boss how you contributed more that year than the guy directly above you.

    I always thought that sounded pretty whack, but people in the company seem to like it. Go figure.

      1. Adam*

        I thought so too, but my friend’s been there ever since he graduated college and they have great retention from what I understand. And it’s a pretty successful company, so something most be going right

      2. TychaBrahe*

        I once found out that as a database programmer I was earning less than one of the clerks in the office, despite the disparity in our skills.

        Then I was hired by another department that wanted to pay me half of what the person who had worked there previously had earned in the role. He trained in a new skill, got a new role, and was promoted and got a raise. I was supposed to train in his original skill, take on this new role, and do it without a raise. Fortunately I had a friend who told me what the previous person had been earning. I wouldn’t have minded making less being new in the role than the person with three years experience, but more like 10% less, not 50% less.

      3. BB*

        As as long as the names aren’t attached, I think it’s a good idea. If I make more than everyone else, I don’t need 100 people asking me how I got them to pay me that.

        1. lachevious*

          Adding names may not be ideal for the reason you mention – but what about years of experience?
          Personally I wouldn’t care if everyone knew how much I made, or bugged me about it (which I doubt they would).

          1. fposte*

            Yeah, ours are all public and nobody really talks about it. I think when you’re used to the information being public it doesn’t have the same kind of special power.

            1. Xay*

              Posting public wages is fine but having to use them to craft an argument for why you should make as much as the person ahead of you is crazy to me.

              1. anon-2*

                It can disarm the “this company is in poverty” reasoning. It also can be used to gauge the cost of replacing you.

                Which, quite often, is the driver behind counter-offers.

    1. lachevious*

      This would be awesome! I would love it if all companies were forced to post the wages of their employees. I don’t see any downside – if your coworkers are making way more money than you at least you be able to easily figure out what other companies pay.

      1. lachevious*

        Uh except the part of where you employee x has to detail why he’s better than employee y. That should be dependent on performance reviews – completed by the managers.

      2. LCL*

        As a public employee in a state with, in my opinion, a WAY too liberal freedom of information law, any person can find out the salary of a public employee. And their overtime worked that year. And their full name and address, if they really work at it. And, the seeker can sue the jurisdiction and win if the information isn’t presented speedily enough, or otherwise to their satisfaction.

        We have a couple professional troublemakers in this state who are making a nice living off information requests.

        1. Xay*

          When I worked in state government, one of the major newspapers hosted a database with all state government salaries with name, agency, location and title. I’m not opposed to FOIA or Sunshine Laws, but when the privacy debates happen here and elsewhere, I have to shrug. Most of my career is public record and accessible on Google.

        2. Artemesia*

          I worked for a school district in the late 60s and of course salaries were public. When local birchers were trying to defeat school levies — the taxes that funded the public schools — they ran ads with salaries of very well paid school employees — including combining the salaries of a husband and wife who both were for the district and claiming that as ‘an outrageous salary’. Of course it was twice what anyone on the teaching staff was making because it was in fact TWO salaries.

      1. lachevious*

        City/State/County, job title, years of experience, salary – that’s information that would be helpful to have access to, especially while job-hunting. The resources we have now (in the for-profit market) are not reliable.

      2. Adam*

        Pretty sure they were, as part of the process as I understood it was having to explain your year in comparison to next guy or gal. If it’s just a plain number I’m not sure how they were supposed to do that.

    2. Wren*

      I worked for a public university and EVERYONE’S salary was a matter of public record. I liked it.

      1. Mallory*

        Public university here, too. Everyone’s salary is a matter of public record, and on top of that, the local newspaper does an annual feature where they list the names, departments, and salaries of anyone making over $100,000.

          1. Mallory*

            I don’t know how people find our under-$100K salaries, but they’d have to purposely look it up somewhere.

    3. Zahra*

      That’s a great way to show whether any discrimination is happening. I only wish employers did this more often.

    4. Bea W*

      I’m finding myself torn here. On the one hand, that information would give lower paid but highly valuable and product people good arguments for getting what might be a substantial raise. It could create some healthy competition where people know they need to justify how much raise they are worth so they push themselves a little harder. On the downside, it could result in unhealthy competition where people target their highest paid peers to backstab and undermine to get ahead. You’d really have to have an honest mature group to make this work. I can totally see certain types of people getting catty under these circumstances.

  9. Rebecca*

    #2 – we have been told, and are still told, that if we discuss our pay with other employees it’s grounds for termination. I wish there was a way to give this to my manager without her calling us all together for a “who did this” meeting.

    1. LBK*

      Have you ever brought it up to her that it’s illegal? Not in a “I’m threatening to sue you” way, but more like “Hey, I was actually reading an article on surprising workplace laws the other day and there’s actually one that prevents the policy our office has in place about discussing wages. Were you aware of that? Just want to make sure we’re in compliance and not opening ourselves up to liability.”

      1. Rebecca*

        No, I haven’t. I’m an hourly worker, over 50, non union. To be perfectly honest, as much as I dislike my current job, it pays the bills and I don’t want to give them any reason to get rid of me.

        I realize that’s cowardly, but I am truly concerned about pushing things too much. I’ve already made some waves by making HR clarify our sick leave policy (turns out it’s really crappy and we really should have additional personal insurance), the lack of evaluations or possibility for merit increases, etc.

    2. Agile Phalanges*

      I believe the law is more about entry-level workers being able to discuss their own personal salaries amongst themselves. I think that manager-level people are not allowed to discuss salaries at all, their own or those they’re aware of through their management duties. I could be wrong, though.

      Is it possible that you fall under the latter group and therefore were accurately told not to discuss salaries?

      1. KJR*

        The right to discuss one’s wages, benefits & working conditions applies to everyone who is covered under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which includes salaried employees.

        1. fposte*

          It’s true that it’s got broader scope than FLSA, but it still exempts supervisors and several other categories: employees “shall not include any individual employed as an agricultural laborer, or in the domestic service of any family or person at his home, or any individual employed by his parent or spouse, or any individual having the status of an independent contractor, or any individual employed as a supervisor, or any individual employed by an employer subject to the Railway Labor Act [45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq.], as amended from time to time, or by any other person who is not an employer as herein defined.”

    3. Kelly*

      That policy was in effect at most of the retail jobs I’ve worked. It’s extremely common and at least in my experiences, most of my coworkers were not aware that it was illegal. It’s not good for morale especially when certain groups and individuals get paid more for no really logical reason. The one situation I remember from last retail job was when it came out that the male employees were getting paid significantly more than their female peers. It caused some bad feelings towards them and management. I think my comment was something along the lines of just because he has XY chromosomes doesn’t make him a harder worker. One guy was a nice person and easy to get along with, but the other was a more difficult personality. I worked in the home area and they tried to get guys in that area along with men’s and shoes. They were higher sales areas and routes into management.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, if I had to guess, the two most violated labor laws are this one and correctly classifying non-exempt workers and paying them overtime.

  10. Kelly*

    #7 is the one that irritates me. I work for a public academic library and the position descriptions are adhered to certain degrees depending on the supervisor. My supervisor pretty much ignores mine. I spend most of my time doing public services and projects that are fairly low on the list in my position description. It’s frustrating because I can’t get my higher priority work done. It’s also due to a definite academic caste system. It takes a lot for her or the reference person to help out when we need public coverage. They seem to act like it is an inconvenience for them to interact with the public because they are higher up on the food chain and have the librarian title.

    The boss can set whatever rules they want even their “rules” only make sense to them and irritate their subordinates. In my case, I can’t work as effectively because I don’t work well getting constant headaches due to not being able to have drinks at my desk because I handle books. Also, there’s a generational difference that manifests itself. She doesn’t think that you can concentrate while listening to your Ipod or Iphone while working. I don’t agree with her and feel that if we don’t have general public contact that it doesn’t matter.

    1. TK*

      Archivist here: the no-drinks thing is par for the course in many libraries and archives; that’s not just your supervisor. My particular office does allow drinks if they’re in a closed container (but I’m not a have-a-drink-at-my-desk kind of person usually, I’d just have to pee all day), but other sections in my building don’t.

  11. BB*

    I think the biggest shocker is people who don’t understand at-will employment at all. Your boss can walk in one day and say you’re fired- it’s doesn’t even need to be over something dumb but legal(like you wore a yellow shirt).

    1. Sara M*

      In that case, you were probably wearing a red shirt. And your boss sent you down with the landing party. :)

    2. LBK*

      Of course, the caveat to this is that there are wrongful termination suits and unemployment and so on, so it’s not like employers should go around acting like they have carte blanche when it comes to terminations. They can technically fire you for anything not covered by the EEOC, but it’s not really a good idea.

      1. fposte*

        Wrongful termination *is* EEOC (etc.) stuff–it just means termination for a reason forbidden by law. It doesn’t mean fired for a reason that isn’t true or accurate–it’s perfectly legal for me to fire you for believing you wore a red shirt or insulted my mother even if you didn’t.

  12. Sharm*

    #2 — My old job did this. Because my employer said it so emphatically, I assumed it had to be true. I know that sounds naive. But if I hadn’t found this blog, I wouldn’t have any idea about these kinds of things. It’s hard to get up to speed on the things you don’t even KNOW you don’t know (if that makes sense).

    No one was discussing salary at that old job until we hired a few young staff (and I say that as someone their age, and two years older than the other) who were very vocal about discussing their salary and constantly lobbying to get raises — three months after being on the job. Clearly someone had told them to be vocal about standing up for their worth, but they completely misread our organization and how we did things. So my director laid down this, “Don’t talk to each other about your salary,” rule, but of course, it did nothing.

    I’m so glad this blog exists! I would be lost without it.

    1. LBK*

      Freedom of speech in general is massively misunderstood in the US. It’s freedom of speech, not freedom from consequences. The latest example being Brandon Eich – yes, he’s totally free to openly support Prop 8, and likewise Mozilla’s users are totally free to stop using his product as a result. And it only applies to the government, too, so if your employer tells you you’re not allowed to swear in the office or you’ll be fired, the Bill of Rights is completely irrelevant to that policy.

    2. Rev.*

      And it has nothing to do with your political bent, either. I HATE having to explain to normally intelligent people the concept of “free speech,” and how it relates to employment.

      I always cringe when I hear a political opinion pop up in the office, because most Americans, sad to say, are pretty clueless about how our country actually works.

  13. Anon333*

    #2 is true only if you are a non-supervisory employee, right? So anyone who has supervisory authority can be prohibited from discussing compensation, correct?

  14. Audiophile*

    There’s a tech company that actively promotes it’s transparency when it comes to salaries and hiring practices.

    I have to say, as a job applicant, it was refreshing to see what everyone makes and what new employees would make. Not having to guess, hope they’d mention it, was welcoming. I wish more companies would do this.

  15. LAI*

    #4 What if you work for a government agency or a public school? Then is your employer considered an extension of the government and are they prohibited from limiting your speech? Or does it matter whether it is just one supervisor telling their staff to do/not do something vs. the entire organization creating a policy that restricts free speech?

    1. fposte*

      Ah, I didn’t want to say this bit until I confirmed, and I can confirm–the ACLU successfully sued our chancellor over a decade ago when he told the campus that people here couldn’t talk about a particular subject without clearing it with admin first.

    2. doreen*

      I work at a government agency- and the answer is it depends. On a lot of things- am I speaking as a private citizen or pursuant to my duties ? Is it a matter of public concern or a private matter? Am I speaking at work or away from my workplace? Is my speech the sort they are required to prohibit? No one really thinks of laws prohibiting sexual/racial harassment as limiting speech, but in fact they often do. Limiting speech isn’t only about keeping employees from discussing salaries/work conditions/politics- sometimes it’s about preventing sexual harassment/keeping information confidential/ prohibiting a deputy commissioner from using his/her position to contradict the commissioner in the media or the one I’ve had to deal with most- religious voice mail messages and other proselytizing.

  16. Brett*

    One I have always wonder about is whether or not PTO has to be granted ever if offered as a benefit. I’ve read all sorts of conflicting opinions about this, but not seen anything clear (and I am sure it varies by state).
    To give an idea of a scenario… take an employee who gets 160 hrs of PTO a year with a cap of 240 hrs of PTO. Their entire first year, their manager approves zero PTO for them. They get halfway through their second year, and the manager still will not approve a single PTO day, so they start losing hours. By the end of the second year, they have last 80 hours of PTO and are essentially no longer accruing because the manager refuses to approve any days off.

    Is there anything wrong (from a legal perspective) with a manager doing that? Does the legal aspect change if the manager offers specific hours the employee can take PTO (e.g. you can take 2 hours in the afternoon every Monday and Tuesday afternoon every week) or specific days (you can take off any one week in February, the first week in April, and the first two weeks of November, by no other weeks)?
    What if the manager is approving some requests, but dramatically out of proportion with the benefit? For example, the manager will only approve 40 hours a year no matter what so that the employee is losing 200 hours of PTO every year.

    This could especially get interesting since denying all PTO during normal work hours would make it difficult for an employee to seek another job without quitting first.

    1. Brett*

      Oops, that last part should be “losing 120 hours of PTO every year”. Confused by accrual with my cap.

    2. KellyK*

      In states where it’s treated as compensation, that’s probably not legal. In others, PTO is a “benefit” offered or denied at the employer’s whim. (Which is why I cringe at the suggestion I once heard of changing overtime laws to allow “voluntary” comp time in lieu of overtime pay.)

  17. Puzzled*

    I read #5 with interest. While a former boss did not dock my pay, what they did do — with HR’s help — is dock my FMLA leave.

    Basically, the issue was my being ill. Every hour I spent in the hospital, after my PTO expired, my FMLA was docked. When my FMLA ran out, they fired me.

    I thought that FMLA was something you had to apply to use; that is, you had to ask for it to be used. I never agreed to this, and never signed anything [as I had been required to for an FMLA leave in the past].

    Firing me for being seriously ill is probably not illegal (although making public comments about my illness and telling people I was “undependable” for being in the hospital so much might have been). But I’m not sure of the legality of forcing me to use FMLA and then using it’s expiration as the excuse to remove me.

    1. Bea W*

      Something similarly hinky happened to a friend. She was salary, and when she developed a medical issue and had frequent appointments her boss started docking her PTO on an hourly basis. If she left on her lunch hour for an appointment she lost 1 hr PTO. Her boss (head of Finance) would stand over the payroll clerk and tell her how much PTO to deduct from my friend’s balance. At one point she received a paycheck with a negative PTO balance. She then went on FMLA and was promptly fired when FMLA ran out.

      This is the same now ex-head of finance who reversed my merit raise without notifying me or my manager after I gave notice. I had heard through the grapevine even before that her other shenanigans had resulted in multiple law suits from. One can only hope the reason she is no longer there is because it finally caught up with her. Is it wrong for ne to hope she got screwed out of sone kind of pay or benefits when leaving the same way she loved to stick it to everyone else?

      1. anon-2*

        What’s that expression – ah –

        “She can dish it out, but she sure can’t take it!!!”

    2. LBK*

      If they didn’t use FMLA, what were they going to do once you burned through your PTO? I’m not sure FMLA comes into this really, it sounds like if that weren’t an option they were going to fire you or start docking you time anyway.

      The reality is that while it sucks to lose your job due to illness, if you’re not able to be in the office working, someone has to do that job. After a while it’s not worth keeping you on and overloading your coworkers who are picking up your workload.

    3. KellyK*

      FMLA is not something you have to apply for. If they view time you use PTO for as FMLA qualifying time, they can deduct it from your FMLA max. And once you pass the limit on FMLA time, paid or unpaid, they’re under no obligation to hold your job for you.

      None of that means that what they did was decent or reasonable, just legal. (I understand needing to let someone go if they’re not there reliably due to illness, but it doesn’t sound like they even *talked* to you about how it was an issue first.)

    4. fposte*

      That just sounds like they were using FMLA as the law dictates, and no, they don’t need you to ask for it (and can in fact get in trouble for not initiating it on their own). It’s not “docking,” any more than you’re “docked” a vacation day for taking a day off for vacation. In fact, it sounds like you actually got some extra leave, since they only started running the FMLA clock *after* you used up PTO–an employer is allowed to run PTO concurrently with FMLA, and most do. And yes, it’s legal to terminate an employee whose medical leave exceeds the period mandated by FMLA.

      And without FMLA, there’s no legal requirement for job protection on medical leave at all, so I’m not sure where you’re going with the notion that you didn’t want FMLA–it’s FMLA that kept you from being terminated the day you went into the hospital.

      Sorry about what seems to have been a tough medical period, though, and I hope you’re feeling better now.

  18. Lia*

    Years ago, I worked in a department store. We had a fairly strict dress code, and didn’t make a lot of money, so my co-workers and I kept an eye on the clearance racks for clothes that met the code and were affordable. My coworker M and I both snagged new skirts one day and wound up wearing them the same day a few dats later. Our boss told me my skirt was too short, and not to wear it again (it was just above the knee and our rule was 3″ above the knee). I pointed out M was wearing the same skirt, and was told “it looks better on her, so she can wear it”. Yep, legal.

  19. beth*

    Is my work mistreating me? I had unpaid holiday booked on same month due to a family matter. And wedding and hen do all in same month. He is now saying I can’t take them as holiday I have to work my day off. I haven’t been well to and he knows that. And the holiday I have booked in July has now gone to unpaid. And also saying I have no more holiday left to book but all the holiday I have had has been unpaid. Is this right?!

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