4 things your company might tell you that simply aren’t true

While it would be nice to think that managers are always 100% truthful and accurate when talking to employees, the reality is that managers sometimes say things that aren’t quite true. Sometimes this is because they’ve been misinformed and don’t actually know the correct information, but sometimes it’s because it’s easier to shade the truth.

Here are four things that managers often tell their workers – but which just aren’t true.

1. “You can’t discuss your pay with your coworkers.”

Fact: Companies regularly tell employees that they’re not permitted to discuss their pay with each other. But this is a direct violation of the National Labor Relations Act, which says that employers cannot prevent employees from discussing wages among themselves. The law, which protects employees’ ability to organize and collectively bargain, reasons that employees wouldn’t be able to organize if they were forbidden from talking with each other about pay or other working conditions. (One important note here is that the prohibition on banning salary discussions doesn’t cover every employee; it exempts management-level employees, but the vast majority of workers are covered.)

2. “I can’t let you do ____ because then I’d have to let everyone else do it too.”

Fact: You might have heard a statement like this if you’ve asked your manager to let you telecommute, leave early every Friday, or otherwise do something outside your office norms. The reality, though, is that managers generally do have leeway to approve special arrangements for one person that they don’t approve for everyone else – and they’ll often bend in areas like these in order to keep a great employee happy. What your manager might really be saying with this line is “I’m only willing to go so far to make you happy, and this is past that line.”

That said, there are times when “if I let you do it, I’d have to let everyone else do it too” can be true. While no law prohibits managers from giving special privileges to top performers or even just to their personal favorites, it isillegal to dole out privileges based on protected classes like race, religion, sex, or ethnicity. So some employers are hesitant to grant special privileges in case a pattern emerges in who does and doesn’t receive those privileges, which can trigger concerns about this type of illegal discrimination.

3. “You have to resign.”

Fact: Your employer can fire you, but they can’t force you to resign if you don’t want to. That decision is yours. If you refuse to resign, you might get fired – but some employees prefer that, since it often preserves their eligibility for unemployment benefits. Of course, some employees do prefer to resign when given the choice, to avoid having a firing in their job history. But that’s not always the advantage it might appear to be on the surface, since most interviewers are going to be curious about why you quit your job without another position lined up and will assume that something happened that led to your separation.

If your employer does push you to resign, realize that they’re asking you to do something for them, which means that you have some negotiating power and can consider negotiating things like severance and what your company will tell future reference-checkers.

4. “Sign this document, but don’t worry – we don’t really enforce it.”

Fact: If someone tells you not to worry about what you’re signing, that’s a flag that you should read more closely, not less! If your employer truly had no intention of ever enforcing a signed agreement, they wouldn’t be asking for it in the first place. That doesn’t mean that they’re intentionally trying to hoodwink you; they might simply not foresee the situations that would make the document relevant in the future.

In any case, don’t believe assurances that a signed document isn’t ever going to be used against you. Once you sign, it doesn’t matter what you were told or how much the significance of the agreement was downplayed – it’s a binding legal document, and you can be held to it.

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

{ 72 comments… read them below }

    1. Josh S*

      Non-compete clause is the one that comes to mind. At my current job, I had to sign one at the start of employment, that prohibits me from doing similar work or working with/for current NewJob clients. Well, some of my existing clients from my freelance work were also NewJob clients. So I would technically be unable to support the work I had previously delivered to them (with ongoing follow up a portion of my contract with them).

      Couldn’t get out of signing the non compete. The HR recruiter told me not to worry about it, that it wasn’t an issue. NewManager told me not to worry about it, that Client peaches talent all the time and NewJob doesn’t enforce the Non-compete. I told them I was uncomfortable with that based on my own ethics… I’m not willing to sign something that I don’t intend to stick to.

      Ended up handwriting in a clause stating ‘except for existing clients for a period of 6 months, for existing work support’ or something along those lines. Legally binding on them? I have no idea. But if it ever comes back at me, I have something in writing on file.

    2. Meg Murry*

      At one company I worked for, it was an ethics statement – retroactive to the previous year. The company had very questionable ethics, and a group of us refused to sign it – it was a mess.
      The other place I’ve seen it done (Jamie will scream) is to sign back dated training or calibration records for an audit.

      1. Aunt Vixen*

        THEM: We’re handing out copies of a document that outlines the regulations and whatnot that pertain to the things we’ve talked about in today’s briefing. Please sign this form to verify that you have received this document. … Oh, hang on, there’s a thing on the second page of the handout that’s been superseded. Okay, so we’re not handing out the copies – please sign the form and we’ll get you the corrected handout later this afternoon.

        ME: I’m pretty sure you just asked us all to sign our names to an untrue statement. I’ll sign to indicate receipt of your handout just as soon as I have received your handout, and not a minute before.

    3. MousyNon*

      There’s also stuff that’s less obvious than a non-compete. For example, most people sign off on receiving company rules/regs from HR, and those rules likely have things buried in them that they could enforce harshly if they wanted.

      Not using company equipment for personal things for example (web surfing, photo copies anyone?), not taking work off-site (yet employees without company-granted laptops are still expected to work from home); etc etc. These are areas most (good) companies won’t ever enforce, but I’ve seen horror stories where these sorts of infractions were used as justification for firing someone.

    4. Phideaux*

      About 2 years ago, a non-compete was passed around to existing employees that had 2 pretty ridiculous clauses in it. 1) No employees could go to work for any company who directly or indirectly competed with us, was in the same industry, and included their suppliers and customers. Ever….in our entire lifetime. 2) Any skills or training acquired at the company could not be used at future jobs, proprietary or not. For example, if you learned Excel at this job, you could not use it a future jobs!

      This was followed up with a verbal “We just want everyone to sign it, but we won’t really enforce it.” I never signed it, and haven’t heard a word about it since.

      1. linguaignota*

        I’m a lawyer, but not an employment lawyer (and I’m not you’re lawyer, [insert other disclaimers here]), and that sounds unenforceable for several reasons. First, it sounds waaaaay too broad. Restrictive covenants have to be limited in time and geographic scope.

        Also, in some states, if your employer wants you to sign a non-compete after you’ve already been working there a while, the employer has to offer additional consideration (i.e., additional pay, additional vacation days, etc.). In other states, no additional consideration is required.

        This is why it’s always, always a good idea to have any kind of non-compete or other restrictive covenant looked over by an employment lawyer.

        1. Stephanie*

          My last job had us sign a similar agreement, but not anything as crazy as a lifetime ban. We did specialized consulting work and we were purportedly banned from working for a client or competitor for two years post-employment. I never got how that could be enforceable.

        2. MousyNon*

          My understanding is that judges typically come down on the side of the employee/narrow review of non-competes, but whether or not an ex-employee can afford to fight it in court is a separate story. As in most contractual cases, it’s the worst-case-scenarios that suck. Should an employee leave and the employer elect to sue based on an over-broad non-compete, the legal costs could cripple the employee. In Amazon v. Powers for example, the judge hammered Amazon’s outrageously over broad non-compete, but Powers had the full might of Google at his back to take that thing to court. Most employees don’t, or won’t have that.

          Incidentally, despite Amazon losing, and despite the judge flat out stating that their non-compete was too broad to enforce, they keep using the same non-compete across the board (or at least they did for quite some time after the decision). Non-competes have gotten pretty insane, honestly.

    1. Sharon*


      LOL! Cynical but funny because it’s so often one of those polite little PR lies!

  1. Canadamber*

    Oh, apparently #2 is actually true in a union environment – or at least is here in Ontario, which might be different in the States. They can’t give special privileges to anyone.

  2. some1*

    If your employer has you sign something that says you can’t use the internet for personal use at work, you probably won’t get disciplined for, say, looking up your uncle’s obituary once, but they could if they wanted to.

    1. James M*

      I think there’s a fine line between CYA clauses and iron-fisted rule-mongering. “Not use company property or services for personal use” sounds like a rule that is made to be unenforced except in extreme cases.

      I think making 5000 photocopies of your bare ____ will get you in trouble with or without a rule covering photocopier use.

    2. Stephanie*

      That sounds like one of those things that’s enforced only if the personal use is egregious or if someone’s trying to find a way to get rid of an employee.

    3. Angora*

      The only time I have seen the “not for personal use” statement use at job, was when they were looking at reasons to get rid of someone. Say you have a problem employee, that has a lot of work issues but not enough to terminate. But all the little things add up, or perform quite well but their attitude is disruption, disrespectful or just causes problem. You cannot fire them for cause because they are performing but they are high maintenance. They will start looking at your computer usage. Than you can be terminated for cause. Even if it’s to check your bank statement at lunch.

    4. Risa*

      I used it once, because I had an employee who was using her work email to harass her ex over child support/custody. She sent him a blank email repeatedly every minute or so in order to blow up his phone. He called me to complain. IT got involved and was able to document that she was doing this. This was a second infraction for which she had already been warned once. We chose to terminate her employment.

        1. Angora*

          Wonder about people’s intelligence sometimes. You do something wrong, 99% of the time it can be traced back to you.

        2. Risa*

          Her work email… which made it easy to term her. It was really stupid – she was angry and irrational about the situation and just didn’t understand why it was an issue for us.

  3. Rebecca*

    #1 – yes, have heard this many times, and #2 – almost those exact words when I asked to be able to work from home 1 day a week. I commute almost 50 miles round trip to log into another computer system remotely. My managers reasoning was because she can’t trust everyone to telecommute, no one can.

  4. Brett*

    #3 A lot of employers now actually ask you if you were forced to resign as well as if you were fired. We actually include it as a specific signed statement on our background check now.

    1. abby*

      Yes, I have seen several application forms that ask if you were ever fired or asked to resign.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      So how do you answer that question if you were given three options? Resign, be fired, take a demotion.

    3. MutualDecisionAnon*

      And what do you call it if, after your 6 month probationary period, they “chose not to hire” you, offered you the option of completing the month, and you decided not to? I figured resign, since they made me write a statement saying that I chose to leave that day instead of ending the month with them.

  5. Juli G.*

    I was just yelling at someone for telling an employee #1 Friday (okay not yelling but “scolding” or whatever). I hate when I find out about that because than I feel a HR obligation to have an awkward conversation with the misinformed employee and then they feel like HR is watching them…

    In short, don’t say this if you work at my company, okay?

  6. MK*

    About the whole “If I let you do X, then I have to let everyone else do it too”, I think perhaps managers are not so much lying as using the wrong words. Yes, usually it’s not a case of the manager not being allowed to grant special priviledges, but of them thinking doing so would be a bad idea, that it would cause major problems and lead to dysfunction in the workplace.

    Human nature being what it is, it is highy probable that, once one worker is granted a special priviledge, many others (who didn’t think it was possible or didn’t think to ask for it or didn’t know they wanted it till their neighbor got it) may ask for it too. For example, say you manage 7 workers and the one who is middle-of-the-range as regards productivity and work ethic asks to telecommute one day a week. Suppose that, after you grant it, three more people want to do it too, but having one person working from home 4 out of 5 days is not possible or problematic. How do you refuse these three people? Tell them that it was first come, first served and their co-worker gets the privilidge because they thought of it first? What if one or more of these people are better employees than the one who got the priviledge? You have now rewarded an average worker and refused your top performers. Rescind the priviledge and grant it based on some other criteria? The person who had gotten it (and might have made arrangements accordingly) will probably and not unreasonably be annoyed. The whole thing has the potential to become disastrous as far as morale and relationships in the workplace go. Even if there is an excellent work-related reason for one person to be allowed to telecommute and others not.

    I think in many cases “I can’t let you do X, because then I have to let everyone do it” basically means “I won’t let you do X, because I can’t see a fair and productive way to handle the situation, if everyone else asks for it too”. And, yes, this is hypothetical, but a good manager should consider the possible long-term ramifications of such an action.

    1. GrumpyBoss*

      Completely agree. When I’ve heard those words (and even used them as a manager), I never thought about it in a legal perspective.

      I’ve also experience the exact same scenario that you described. I had a 1 day-per-week work from home policy, and it was determined in advance what day of the week was your day. It worked well for a couple of years. Then I had one guy buy a home that was a good 2 hours away from the office. Sure enough, a week into his new commute, he was asking to work from home every day. He was a very strong performer, and I didn’t want to lose him, so I said we’d try it out on a trial basis, and we’d reverse it: 4 days at home, 1 day at the office. It worked well for him. But just as you predicted, now I had an entire team saying what about me? The team was frustrated and angry at me (rightfully so). They began to resent their peer. It was horrible for culture and morale. I eventually had to rescind the special privilege I gave to my employee, because extending it out to the whole team just wasn’t an option.

      You learn that sometimes, “If I did it for you, I’d have to do it for everyone” was absolutely true.

      1. Dan*

        It’s always nice to be able to do special things for your top performers, but as you’ve discovered, that doesn’t mean there’s never unintended consequences.

      2. Mallory*

        I had a boss in a previous job who allowed me and another co-worker to job-share for a period of time. We were allowed to arrange the days and hours that we would each work, as long as we committed to a consistent schedule and notified our manager.

        Our manager flat-out told the entire team that co-worker and I were the only ones that she would consider for such an arrangement, and she told them that the reason was that we were the only two whose performance and reliability merited such an arrangement. She just told everyone else up front that this was the arrangement and for no one else to even ask.

        1. MK*

          Obviously the culture of your workplace allowed her to handle it this way and, if it had no negative impact, she made the right call. But she basically told your co-workers that she didn’t trust them with this priviledge or thought they were worth it and showed she didn’t care about their reactions; things might have gone very wrong (low morale, arguements about her evaluation of their performance, complaints to her supervisor, etc). So, it’s understandable that many managers prefer to avoid the situation altogether.

          1. Mallory*

            Yeah, it was a fairly entry-level office job with a moderate amount of turnover.

            Now that you mention it, I can’t see what she did flying with a team comprised of more senior or high-performing people. The fact that it worked for her then was definitely particular to that situation.

  7. MousyNon*

    I was told exactly #4 re: a non-compete with Big Data. I walked far, far away from that (otherwise very lucrative) offer as a result. What’s funny is, my business is negotiating legal documents. The fact that their HR office actually said that expecting me not to laugh them out of the room is pretty unbelievable. “Hey now, person who makes their living negotiating worst-case-legal-scenarios, this worst-case-scenario NEVER happens so just sign right here!”

    1. Dan*

      You know what? At least they were willing to pony up for the privilege. I realize it wasn’t lucrative enough for you to do it, but you certainly implied that the offer was very significant. Because yes, if I have to “sign here” I would do it if I were properly rewarded. Market rate for a non-compete, when a non-compete isn’t standard? Only if I were desperate.

      1. MousyNon*

        It was lucrative based on market rate for my industry (which isn’t big data), not based on big-data market rates. Based on what big-data typically pays, this was mid-to-low end. Non-competes also aren’t typical in my industry, like they are in big-data. Big-data just uses a broad brush for all of the pies it has its fingers in.

        I personally can’t think of a perks package (short of a starting bonus equivalent to 18mos paid salary + benefits) large enough to justify the draconian non-compete they wanted me to sign. It basically made you unemployable for a full 18 mos (because this company is so prolific and in so many industries that you’d be hard pressed to find a job that didn’t violate the over-broad terms of that non-compete). But hey, to each their own!

  8. Meg Murry*

    The other one I love is “we have an excellent benefits package”. Everyone says it. Even the places that actually have mediocre benefits. I was truly surprised at my last job offer that it really was an excellent (but cheap!) benefits package – that is rare.

    1. Mallory*

      I think “We have an excellent benefits package” is just boilerplate that most companies use whether it’s true or not. It’s similar to, “We value our employees”, “We have an open-door policy”, etc., etc.

    2. Dan*

      My last job had an excellent benefits package. After a VC-buyout and sale to a Very Large Multinational Corporate, the benefits are now what I consider to be average.

      The job page starts out talking about “comprehensive benefits” and then the actual subheading says “Great Benefits.” Oops, no.

      My current employer actually has an excellent benefits package. Strangely, they don’t use any adjective to describe the package. All it really says is “we offer benefits in the following areas.”

    3. Dan*

      Funny thing is, I’ve seen posters write “We have excellent…” but then don’t say much about what the benefits actually are. Drives me nuts, because “Employer pays all of the premiums” (while it sounds good) on a crappy policy can actually be worse than paying some premiums on a better policy. If my employer-paid policy has a $5,000 deductible, that’s not necessarily “good health care.” $100/mo for a policy with a $200 annual deductible? Um, that’s not bad.

      For the next open thread, I’m going to just pose the question: For those of you who think you have excellent benefits, would you please describe them?

      1. Janis*

        And then please give us the name of your company — the last company in the United States of America — to offer good insurance so we can all apply. We have high deductible insurance which is appalling bad, and basically a regressive nightmare on our admin and facilities staff who have to meet that $5000 deductible — sometimes more than 10% of their GROSS salary.

        Oh, I’ll stop before I wind myself up.

    4. Stephanie*

      Yeah, I’ve heard that phrase so much it’s meaningless at this point without specifics.

  9. sophiabrooks*

    Speaking of discussing salary- is it weird that a place of employment with pay grades keeps the pay ranges a secret? I know there is a document with all the grades, the midpoint, the point at which you will get no more raises etc because at a previous job with the same employer I was allowed access to it. Now, if you ask HR what your range is, they tell you to ask your manager. My manager doesn’t even know what I make- all pay decisions are made by a dean and an accounting assistant. They maintain that they are not allowed to tell us the range. I am sure this is legal, but I just think it is weird. I would love to know if I have a chance of making more money by applying to a different job within the university. (It is complicated because there are grades within categories– so if I moved from administrative to informational, for example, I don’t know which level is close to my current level. )

    1. Cajun2Core*

      If you work for a public university in the US, chances are all of that information is publicly available. I am not 100% sure how you would get it, but if it is public money, how much money you make and others make should be publicly available. I would start at your school’s library.

    2. Lizzy May*

      Most universities I know of (in Canada, so it may be different) are unionized at almost every level. The collective bargaining agreements are on their websites and if you read through it you can find the payscales. Its not going to give you every little breakdown but its an amazing guide. If you’re unionized, take a look at your CBA. It probably has more salary information than you’d expect.

  10. Jeanne*

    My problem is we know they’re lying. They probably know they’re lying. Where do managers go to learn to lie a lot with a straight face? Do they lose their consciences?

  11. VictoriaHR*

    I’m curious – does the NLRA apply to talking about looking for another job at work? Not searching while on the clock, but just talking with a coworker and mentioning that you’re unhappy and looking for another job?

    I was written up for that and the head of HR told me that I was “unethical” for discussing a job search while I was at work.

    1. James M*

      I doubt the NLRA includes anything about being written up for expressing your opinions. Unless you think it qualifies as harassment for some reason, I’d just continue my job search quietly.

      1. Natalie*

        The exact prohibition is “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed” in the law . Presuming the statement VictoriaHR had made would have been covered by the law, a write-up would have likely been considered a violation.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The NRLA says your employer can’t interfere with your right to discuss “wages and working conditions.” Whether or not this would qualify would probably depend on the specifics of the conversation, and probably isn’t black and white.

  12. smilingswan*

    You forgot “we are not closing our doors/considering a layoff/outsourcing your jobs”. I’ve heard that more than once.

    1. Noah*

      In many cases though these decision are made at a level above most managers. I worked for an airline that said up until the Christmas Eve when I received a furlough notice that things were improving and our jobs were safe. The managers simply didn’t know and were passing along what they were told by the executives. Not saying it was right or wrong, but I can understand not wanting to drop that bomb until the details are worked out an finalized.

  13. Erik*

    “We offer lots of areas for growth”. I’ve heard that BS so many times that I don’t even acknowledge it.

  14. Nusy*

    On #4 – if they are really pushing for a signature, you can always sign acknowledgement of receipt only (this is triple-true for bogus write-ups) – essentially, you only acknowledge that you received a copy of the document on the given date, but it doesn’t automatically mean that you agree with what is inside.

    This does NOT mean that they can’t or won’t hold the document against you, but it gives you an additional leg to stand on, should it come to litigation.

  15. Waiting Patiently*

    We value honest feedback should top this list…

    No place ever values honest feedback.

    For my company first, they deleted the comment section from the forms, then when people still marked the company low in some areas our supervisor sent out “reprimand” ok i’m being a little extra, but she sent out letters detailing how the honest feedback was so honest :/

    And one of the issues that came up was trust issues. We have seen her flat out lie at times…

    A similar letter was sent out to clients telling them the policy which backs the statement…

    So for instance if they wanted feedback on “Do we do community work?” —highlighted beside the statement would be the policy that says, We are committed to working in the community. So it kind of persuade people to just check off the yes without putting much thought into what community we actually did….

    1. Anx*

      This is such a big one.

      And it’s such an important thing for me, because I struggle against perfectionism issues and am inexperienced overall so it’s vital for me to be able to ask questions, voice concerns about my ability to do something ahead of time so that it doesn’t come out in front of a client, etc.

      Sometimes I don’t even think managers and higher ups realize that they are sending such mixed messages.

Comments are closed.