8 weird workplace myths that you probably believe

As a workplace advice columnist, I hear people believing and repeating a lot of misinformation about jobs and work. Here are eight of the most common myths I hear about work – and the facts for each. Take a look and see if you’ve fallen victim to any of these mistaken beliefs.

1. Myth: When you’re ready to resign, you write a resignation letter and hand it to your boss. You see this a lot in movies when a character hands a neatly typed resignation letter to her boss, who reads it with surprise.

Fact: In real life, you should rarely announce your resignation in the form of a letter. Instead, you should ask to talk to your boss and explain face-to-face that you’ll be resigning (if you work remotely, you can use the phone for this). Your company may request a resignation letter for its records, but that’s just documentation – it’s not the announcement itself.

2. Myth:Hostile workplace” laws mean that you have legal protection from hostility from your boss or coworkers.

Fact: This law just has a really confusing name. It sounds like it’s referring to, well, hostile behavior. But in fact it protects you only from very specific types of hostility: hostility that’s based on your race, sex, religion, national origin, age (if you’re 40 or older), disability, or genetic information. What’s more, that hostility must be “severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive,” says the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.”

3. Myth: When you talk to HR, they’ll keep it confidential.

Fact: Your HR rep is not like a priest; there’s no obligation to keep your conversation confidential. HR’s role is to serve the company, and if they decide that they need to share what you told them in order to help address a problem, they have a professional obligation to do that. In some cases, they even have a legalobligation to do that, like if you report harassment or discrimination, which they’re then legally required to investigate. There are some cases where you can negotiate confidentiality with HR – like if you’re looking for guidance on how to help solve a problem with your manager – but it’s something to address explicitly rather than assuming you have it.

4. Myth: 80% of job openings are never advertised

Fact: You hear this statement a lot when you’re job hunting, but if you look for data to back it up, it’s pretty hard to find any. It’s certainly true that some jobs don’t get advertised and instead get filled through people’s personal or professional networks. But that 80% figure sounds outrageously high to every hiring manager I’ve ever run it by.

5. Myth: Companies aren’t supposed to give bad references.

Fact: This myth is incredibly pervasive, despite not being true. It’s perfectly legal in the U.S. for an employer to give a detailed reference, including negative information, as long as it’s factually accurate. Certainly some companies have their own internal policies that they won’t give references and that they’ll only confirm dates of employment and title. But corporate policies aren’t the law. It’s both legal and common for employers to give detailed references, including negative ones.

6. Myth: Your employer can’t make you do something that’s not in your job description.

Fact: Your manager can assign you any type of work she wants, regardless of what’s in your job description (assuming that you don’t have a contract to the contrary, which most American workers don’t). People sometimes assume that the common presence of “other duties as assigned” in job descriptions must be there for a legal reason, but it’s just there for clarity of communication with you! Job descriptions aren’t binding documents.

7. Myth: Your employer has the right to prohibit you from discussing your salary with your coworkers.

Fact: Federal law forbids employers from preventing workers from discussing their wages with each other (or at least for most people; some management employees are excluded from this protection). The idea is that workers have a federally protected right to organize for change around wages and working conditions, and they can’t do that if they’re not allowed to share salary information with each other. If you’re surprised by this because your employer has a rule against salary-sharing, you have a lot of company. Employers commonly violate this rule, either in ignorance of the law or simply despite it.

8. Myth: Your boss needs to have a good reason for firing you.

Fact: In every state in the U.S. except Montana, employment is “at-will,” which means that either you or your employer can terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason. That means that your employer doesn’t need to show just cause for firing you, as long as your firing isn’t discriminatory (based on your race, sex, religion, or other protected characteristic) and as long as it’s not in retaliation for exercising a legally protected right (like reporting harassment or organizing a union). Of course, good employers don’t just fire people willy-nilly – but it’s useful to be aware that they have a pretty wide berth here.

{ 191 comments… read them below }

    1. Karo*

      It’s always fun to go through those threads and try to explain the difference between illegal and bad idea. I have more negative karma from doing that than I can count.

    2. Ripley*

      If you think LegalAdvice bad, don’t ever go to the Jobs subreddit. This advice would get (wrongfully) downvoted into oblivion.

  1. Fleur*

    The no one can give you a bad reference myth annoys me the most because it’s usually accompanied by terrible advice about burning bridges or assuring people who’ve been fired that it won’t affect their future references at all.

    1. Malibu Stacey*

      Or people think they can’t get a bad reference so they quit without notice or majorly slack off during their notice speech.

    2. Ama*

      I feel like that myth was invented by the people who like to give good references to subpar employees so they can be someone else’s problem.

    3. Mike C.*

      It also spawns companies that refuse to give references to former employees out of some stupid fear of being sued.

      1. Taylor Swift*

        Yes, this! I think this is the origin. Employers think they’ll get sued if they say anything and employees think they can sue if anything bad is said.

      2. Gazebo Slayer*

        And in the case of one of my previous employers, it spawns companies that refuse to give references even to the point that they *won’t confirm or deny whether you ever even worked there.*

        Which makes every former employee look like a liar.

        1. Optimistic Prime*

          That doesn’t even make any sense from the company’s standpoint – a background check would easily turn up this information, and how could they think reporting factual information would be held against them?

      3. neverjaunty*

        The “fear of being sued” actually runs in the other direction.

        Companies want to make sure they don’t say nice things about former employees, because that hurts their ability to say bad things about those employees later in case of a lawsuit.

        It’s a little hard to credibly say “We didn’t lay off Leverentia because she’s over forty, we laid her off because she was a subpar worker” if your HR department gave Leverentia a ringing endorsement.

    4. Koko*

      It seems so obviously false on its face, too. If employers couldn’t give bad references, what would even be the point of asking for references? The fact that they’re so commonly used in hiring means they must be yielding critical information.

    5. Kinder and Gentler Manager*

      I had an employee I fired once assume that not only would I automatically give her a good reference, but I’d cover for the lies she told about why she was fired/what her job was.

    6. MinB*

      It’s a really pervasive and harmful myth. I know someone who believed he wasn’t allowed to give a bad reference (or any reference at all, really – just confirm dates) about a guy who was fired after multiple documented incidents of flashing several of his coworkers. This is after neither of them worked at that organization anymore, too, so it wasn’t even a company policy issue. He thought it was illegal across the board. I set him straight and I sincerely hope he’s warning people about the flasher now.

  2. Malibu Stacey*

    The only thing I’d add is many, many people thinking they have free speech protection at work. “I got written up for posting a facebook status talking crap about my boss so I’m going to hire a lawyer because Free Speech!” Yeah, good luck with that.

    1. LSP*

      Many people think that they have the right to say whatever they want, when they want, without repercussions because “FREE SPEECH”. The American Right to Freedom of Speech means that you are protected from prosecution, not repercussion, including getting fired.

      Social media has complicated things a bit, especially because for many people, Facebook is treated like a combination diary/soapbox (a strange combination) where they post the incredibly personal and often insulting information that would either never share with anyone in real life, or they would only share with a select few people.

      1. Turquoise Cow*

        People really don’t understand the first amendment at all. I’ve seen it referenced in that sort of manner so many times – “they kicked me out of a restaurant for shouting racist remarks!” Or “I was fired because I said something mean!” First amendment only protects you from retaliation by the government – not from other people or private businesses. It certainly does not mean that you cannot be fired for comments on social media!

        1. Annie Moose*

          Oh gracious. It’s so common on forums and other community-type sites like Reddit. “But muh free speech!!!!” Listen, buddy, the government isn’t running Reddit/Discord/this random forum. It’s like you’re walking into someone else’s house. If they don’t like the way you’re conducting yourself, they can ask you to leave.

      2. Antilles*

        The American Right to Freedom of Speech means that you are protected from prosecution, not repercussion
        It’s actually even more limited than that!
        1.) You can waive your right to free speech either through explicitly agreeing to something or possibly by just being there if it’s posted appropriately.
        2.) The government is allowed to restrict your right to freedom of speech if they can show a compelling public interest.

      3. LiveAndLetDie*

        Furthermore, your right to freedom of speech refers to your freedom from retribution from *the government* for the things you say. It doesn’t protect you from the workplace rules of a private organization or from disagreement or criticism from your peers.

      4. Falling Diphthong*

        10 students just had their acceptances to Harvard rescinded for posting some pretty horrific memes on the incoming class Facebook. (“Find a photo of a dead child and make a gross joke about it. Then we’ll invite you into the very special Facebook group.”) I suspect that there was a lot of emperor’s new clothes reasoning, e.g. “If I feel like this is a private discussion invisible to anyone who would disapprove, that magically becomes true.”

        1. Not Chevy Chase*

          Yeah, I saw this on the Crimson website. How will the Lampoon fill its 2021 quota?

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          The WaPo picked up the story from the Crimson and polled three students (v. scientific). Although two students said they thought the school’s response was necessary, one raised the “free speech” argument and also argued that “this was private speech!” (I do not know how someone can argue that posting in a public forum on the internet—even if it has semi-restricted access—is “private” speech.)

          1. Liet-Kynes*

            There is literally no legal concept of “private speech.” My mind is full of WTF.

      5. Brett*

        > The American Right to Freedom of Speech means that you are protected from prosecution, not repercussion, including getting fired.

        It does protect you from repercussions from the government other than prosecution. For a simple example, the mayor cannot seize your house from you just liked the facebook page of his challenger, even though no prosecution is involved. Both free speech and due process are involved there, and due process is frequently the actual protection that is supporting the protection of speech.
        Which does mean that freedom of speech combined with due process can protect you from repercussions in the workplace if your employer is the government. (But it is not a blanket protection.)

      6. Optimistic Prime*

        And even on the prosecution side, there are still things certain things you can’t say. Freedom of speech is restricted in many ways in the interest o public safety.

    2. Mike C.*

      The free speech thing certainly doesn’t apply, but discussing how much your boss sucks with other coworkers is certainly protected under the same rules that allow you to discuss your salary.

      1. Koko*

        True, though I wonder what case precedent there is for a Facebook post being considered to fall under discussing working conditions with coworkers if say, your 200 friends can see the post and only 1 or 2 of them are coworkers.

        1. Observer*

          There actually is some case law, but from what I have seen, it’s a mixed bag.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          EEOC recently brought a case about this! An employee submitted a critical/negative comment to Glassdoor and was terminated shortly thereafter. The facts seem a little squishy, but the EEOC is suing on a First Amendment retaliation theory (it’s still pending at the trial court).

          Of course Glassdoor != Facebook, but it’s interesting.

      2. ArtK*

        There’s a distinction to be made between a 1:1 conversation with co-workers and a discussion on FB. The latter is more like putting your opinion up on a billboard next to the highway. No matter what people think, FB is *not* in any way, shape or form private. I don’t care what your “privacy” settings are, if it exists on the ‘net, it can be found.

    3. WG*

      And in academia the offshoot is “Academic Freedom” protection. I had a coworker in a university that was not a professor and didn’t even work in an academic department that posted a controversial newspaper article on their office door. The article, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with the person’s job or even that university. When the employee was asked to remove it from their door they claimed “academic freedom” allowed them to post anything they wanted, anywhere they wanted. Umm – no.

      1. HigherEd on Toast*

        I had a student this semester get in trouble for threatening another one as they disagreed about an issue the class was writing on, and he tried to claim academic freedom when Student Affairs got involved. There is no academic freedom to threaten people over their opinions, sorry.

        (I also have had students tell me I was restricting their academic freedom because there are some topics I won’t let them write papers about in freshman composition, like abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty. It makes me wish there was a way to condense the sensation of years of reading horrible, badly-“researched” arguments about these topics and inject it into people’s brains. Damn straight I’m not letting you write about it).

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yes. At least in my limited experience, I’ve met a not-negligible minority of higher ed folks who think “academic freedom” is some kind of talisman that allows them to say/do any number of really strange and inappropriate things.

    4. Drago cucina*

      There is a person in my profession that returned from a work suspension. She then posted Facebook comments about her place of employment and tagged their Facebook page so it showed up in their newsfeed. Some of her supporters are going, “But free speech.”

      No. A really poor decision on the employee’s part.

  3. An Inspector of Gadgets, or a Gadget-Filled Inspector?*

    What’s the difference between Montana and other states that have had “right-to-work” employment controversies (Michigan comes to mind)?

    1. AIGGFI?*

      Sorry, answered my own question quickly (right-to-work is poorly/misleadingly named and is related to union membership dues)

    2. fposte*

      Right to work is a different doctrine from at-will. Right to work is about the requirement to join a union; at-will is about whether or not you or your employer need a reason to part company.

    3. JGray*

      Montana just doesn’t have “at-will” employment like other states. I think the myth related to this is that you can’t get fired from a job which is just not true. What it means is that if an employer wants to fire you the have to do progressive discipline and show cause. This also doesn’t mean they will give you a bad reference. The employer might just say that you resigned. This applies whether you are in a union or not.

  4. Antilles*

    4. Myth: Eighty percent of job openings are never advertised.
    Serious question: Does anybody have data/guesses/estimates/etc as to what the real percentage is?
    Admittedly I have limited perspective, but outside of purely internal hires*, I very rarely see job openings which aren’t at least posted somewhere. Maybe the advertising is pretty specific – industry-specific job search sites, only on the company’s website, etc rather than a purely open posting on LinkedIn or Monster…but still advertised somewhere.
    *And one can argue these aren’t really covered under the ‘intent’ of the myth – if the company is strongly determined to fill internally, you as an outsider are probably going to really struggle to get any traction unless/until they realize they can’t fill internally.

    1. Malibu Stacey*

      I wonder if it’s left over from when job searching was done by newspaper Want Ads and businesses didn’t want to pay for them or wait for the ad to run?

      1. Antilles*

        Now that you mention it, I distinctly remember reading something similar to this from a mid-90’s job search book. So yeah, it’s entirely possible that this ‘advice’ is left-over from a different era when advertising a job actually had a direct and continuing cost to employers rather than the current online model where posting a job on your website or LinkedIn is basically free outside of your time.

    2. Amber Rose*

      I would hazard a guess at like, 10%. Maybe less. My current job, for instance, was a social network thing not a posting. Most of our hires are referred to my boss by someone he knows, or are someone he met at a trade show. In niche industries, hiring is often done like that or from a pool of people who used to work there.

      But even my technologically illiterate previous boss had a posting up on Indeed. So. I’d say the overwhelming majority are posted somewhere.

    3. Turquoise Cow*

      I think it depends on the industry. I got a few jobs by word-of-mouth type referrals from former coworkers or whatnot. My husband works for a tech startup and their go-to method of hiring is to search their networks for someone they’ve worked with in the past (the few times they’ve actually advertised it didn’t work out well), and that seems to be fairly common in that universe.

      I would imagine that in some fields it’s less common, though, and more common to advertise.

    4. Construction Safety*

      My feeling about Monster & Career Builder is that 80% of the jobs they advertise don’t exist.

      1. Frustrated Optimist*

        Not sure if you’re being tongue-in-cheek about this, or at least with the percentage being as high as 80%…?

        Would love to hear more perspective on this, if possible. Assuming you’re really finding it to be true, would you say that the notion applies to Indeed as well?

    5. Liane*

      I think that if Alison had found such statistics, she would have mentioned it. “However [this research] found it was between Y and Z% depending on industry in Country” or whatever.

    6. Al Lo*

      At my company, I would guess that we posted about 30-40% of the positions we hired for in the last few years. My job came from a posting, and I’ve definitely posted other jobs, but in our niche world, jobs with us are pretty sought after, and we a) have stacks of (unsolicited, but usually from known entities) resumes on file for certain positions, and b) know many of the highly credentialed people in the city that we need for certain positions and would rather approach them directly. If that didn’t get us anywhere, we would post.

    7. LQ*

      I would totally guess that promotions and internal hires are part of what make that 80% number so high.

      …That said….I’m a very not social or networkey person and every job I’ve gotten has been unpublished (well technically one was a promotion that was published internally only).
      In high school they were jobs with places I stopped in to see if they were hiring and one friend of the family who was looking for someone to clean toilets. One I was a temp and a position was created for me. One a coworker/friend referred me to a job that had been open but had closed and then I got it after it was closed and they hadn’t found people. One I did an informational interview that they called me back and offered me a job from. I’ve gotten several promotions that weren’t published even internally. And I’m not in super networkey industries, nonprofits and government mostly.

      1. BRR*

        This is what I was just thinking. I asked for a raise and promotion. If I get it, I will get a title pump from teapot maker to senior teapot maker. The senior teapot maker position never existed so will the job will never be advertised?

        1. Koko*

          Yeah, I think counting promote-in-place rewards as hidden job openings isn’t really in the spirit of the question. It’s about whether job seekers have to rely on networking to find word-of-mouth opportunities vs finding public postings. The fact that some jobs are “created” specifically to recognize existing employees for doing their work at a higher level than before is neither here nor there – that’s a retention technique, not a staffing issue.

    8. Koko*

      Speaking from the other side of the table, nearly every hire I have ever been even tangentially involved in at any place I have worked has been advertised publicly. Assuming my experiences aren’t completely anomalous, my guess is something like 5-10% at best go unadvertised, and my related guess is that they skew heavily towards small business owners hiring friends and family with larger corporations casting a wider net.

    9. Sfigato*

      This is a What Color Is Your Parachute thing that never made sense to me. Every single job I’ve ever gotten was posted, and I’m 42. Almost every job at any org I’ve ever worked at (mostly nonprofits) was posted.
      Then again, my wife works in design, and they don’t always post. she’s more likely to use her network or linked in to find people.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yes. I think people conflate “most people get their jobs / hear about jobs through their network” with “most jobs are not advertised publicly!” I don’t know that I even agree with the first statement, although intuitively it sounds like it’s more likely to be true than the latter.

    10. Anonymous Educator*

      I can speak only for my industry (private K-12 schools), having worked a lot with and in various schools doing hiring. In the independent school world very few jobs are not advertised. There are some—confidential job postings through recruitment firms, but they’re rare (maybe 1 in 20… I’m pulling that number based on memory and gut). Even those usually eventually get posted, because schools want to make sure they’re getting a decent candidate pool and because there’s usually some internal HR process that requires a job to be posted for X number of days officially somewhere.

      The reasons for confidential postings are usually temporary anyway:
      1. They’re firing an employee and want to get a sense of what candidates are out there without letting the current employee know her position’s in danger.
      2. The position is very tentative. There’s not a definite budget for it, but it may come to fruition.
      3. The actual job description is amorphous and ever-changing, so they don’t want to post anything publicly until they have a real sense of what the job will look like.

      1. Meryl*

        I work in public schools and all the districts I’ve worked in have had various rules about posting jobs, although I couldn’t definitively tell you what any of them are (at least, not with certainty). At the very least, I do think all job openings in my current district must be posted, at some point and for some length of time, but I don’t know if any requirements to interview candidates exist (ex. if there is going to be an internal hire, they might not interview others). But in any case, the jobs are posted. Even when they fired someone in the middle of the semester, the job got posted.

    11. KC*

      I work for an IT consulting company, so I know YMMV, and I spend a lot of time building pipelines. You never know when we’ll get a project last minute that we’ll have to staff. When we advertise, it’s because we realise we are lacking a specific skill, or we’re getting ready for a huge project.

      I have a couple of job advertisements that are always open to see “what’s out there”. If the right person comes along, we’ll make a position for them.

      We’ve hired 17 people this year:
      3 employees applied directly for the position (identified openings)
      2 employees were recruited, but were then offered different roles (non-identified openings)
      1 employee applied for a role but I pitched a different position instead (identified opening)
      2 employees were referred by the government as a newcomers to Canada (non-identified openings)
      6 employees were referrals (2 identified and 4 non-identified openings)
      2 employees were directly recruited (identified openings)
      1 employee was a former intern

      So of 17 hires, 8 were filling identified roles (47%). The rest were either “right place, right time” or had skills that we knew we would be able to leverage. The difference is that if we hadn’t met them, we wouldn’t have hired someone.

    12. Clairels*

      I read something a while back that it’s true that many higher-level executive-type jobs aren’t advertised, because they are using headhunters and only going after known quantities and top talent. However, as you get down to entry-level positions, most of them will be posted. Of course, it’s usually going to be younger, entry-level people (I’ve been one of them) liable to see this sketchy “advice” and believe it.

      Also, it’s important to make a distinction between “advertised” (the company actually paying money to a newspaper or someplace like Monster to boost the ad, which is rare) and merely “listed” (such as on the employer’s website where it would be indexed on a site like Indeed and show up in searches). Most open jobs are listed SOMEWHERE, even if it’s only on the employer’s website for few days.

      1. Antilles*

        I agree that high level executive-type jobs often aren’t advertised – for jobs of this caliber, it’s simply far more efficient to pay a recruiter or headhunter to hand-pick candidates because the kinds of people you’re looking for are highly in demand and probably not actively looking to leave.

    13. kitryan*

      In my former industry (regional theater) full time work was usually posted on industry specific boards and promoted through the company and employee’s social networks. However, temporary staff, for larger shows, was usually found through social networks and not publicly posted- there would be a group of ‘regulars’ and when you needed more staff for a month or two you would call through that group or those of the group best suited for the work and when you ran through those people, you’d ask everyone to check with their friends or call up other local theaters for likely prospects. The turnaround time on this kind of staffing didn’t really allow for the typical job posting/interview process.
      Relatedly, this is one industry where cold calling for work was pretty normal- I interviewed a handful of people and if they made good impressions we’d put them in the group we’d call if we had work.
      I’m talking primarily about wardrobe and costume shop staff, as that’s what I have direct experience of, however I think that scene shop, props, lighting, stage crew, etc also worked pretty much the same way.

    14. Brett*

      I wonder what percentage are not _directly_ advertised. I have found that an enormous number of positions in my industry are advertised only through third party recruiters and contractors and not with the employer that the employee will be working with day to day.

    15. Princess Carolyn*

      Every job I’ve ever landed was posted somewhere obvious, like LinkedIn or JournalismJobs. Other than creating a new position for a specific person, what advantage is there to not advertising a job opening?

      1. Koko*

        Exactly this. We of course always seek and highly value referrals and recommendations from our networks, but we’re not so hard up for cash we can’t afford a couple hundred bucks in ad posting fees to cast a wider net. Never hurts to see who else is out there that isn’t already in your network.

    16. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

      This question was addressed at a lecture I recently attended – one of the rare events where unemployed people are given actually useful job hunting advice! There was discussed these “hidden job openings” (sorry I don’t know the real English term for this) that aren’t advertised anywhere. Except they are! Apparently at least here a job opening is classified as “hidden” if it’s not advertised on any of 3 biggest local job boards. If the ad is only on the company’s own web site, or a more specific job board, or LinkedIn, or Facebook, it counts as “hidden” though lots of people can see it. Still you often hear about how networking is super important and you need to contact companies and convince them about your awesomeness so they can hire you for a need they didn’t even realize they had. In reality this is a very rare way to get a job.

      1. Just Jess*

        You got the terminology correct; it’s “hidden job openings.” And that part is fair because there could be 100 orgs. in my geographic region that fit my multiple industries and fields. Advertising only on their own website, Facebook, and LinkedIn might not catch me until weeks later.

      2. The OG Anonsie*

        Ahaaa I was going to say that I suspected all along that this “never posted” thing actually means “can’t be found on Monster” or whatever. Every job I’ve ever had, I had to apply to through the company’s website– however most of the time I found those by looking at the company’s website directly, or by being referred there by someone, and not by finding them via another website or an aggregator like Indeed.

        If you count “it was posted to the public but not easy to stumble across by accident” as “not posted” then the figure, as an estimate, can make sense.

      3. Antilles*

        Very interesting! If this myth really refers to only Generic Job Boards rather than the actual phrasing of “not advertised” it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

    17. Just Jess*

      I’ve been an HR Manager, but I don’t have a large data set for the data part of “Does anybody have data/guesses/estimates/etc as to what the real percentage is?”

      My guess is that 80% of jobs are filled by someone who is within two degrees separation from the hiring chain of command (boss, big boss, etc.). That is just a feeling though. Plus, the wording should change and center on the importance of having good connections rather than 80% of jobs being hidden.

      I think a lot of people who knee-jerk that 80% is too high are also forgetting about internal movements, differences between industries, part-time jobs (stuff like Kitryan mentioned), and businesses with only 2-10 people.

  5. Amber Rose*

    I did believe for a long time that you needed to write a resignation letter (probably because of TV), but I realized eventually how silly that was. Now I mostly think that they can be used as a marvelous way of passive aggressively telling a boss to go sit on an iron pole and rotate.

    After all, speech vanishes but a picture of a letter sits on the internet for eternity.

      1. Isobel*

        Yes, I went in to my boss, explained I would be leaving and handed over a resignation letter. My understanding is that that’s normal here. My notice period was 12 weeks – stipulated in my contract (it’s all very different from the US…)

        1. FiveWheels*

          Yes, normal here in the UK – write a letter, ask to speak to boss, verbally give notice then hand over letter.

      2. Miso*

        In Germany you even have to. Unless you resign in written form and your boss received it, you didn’t resign. We also have long notice periods – a month is the legal minimum, I think, but 3 months is pretty normal.

        1. Hekko*

          Just like in Czechia. Both resignation and layoff has to be done in writing, the notice period counts in months (two months for employee resignation, one to three for layoff) and starts running the first day of the month following after handing over the letter. Not sure how it works for firing an employee for misconduct, because the most serious offences allow for immediate termination, but it probably has to be done in writing, too.

          Oh, and the employer always has to state the reason for termination and it has to be one of the reasons listed in the Employement Law. Fun!

          The myth probably originates from people who came to America from a country where written resignation is either required or at least common and recommended.

      3. Statler von Waldorf*

        In Canada it is very commonly required as well. I suspect that it’s because there is no at-will employment here, so the company wants proof that you left voluntarily so they are in the clear for not paying notice or severance.

        However, Alison is right that it comes across better as written backup of a conversation that you already have, not something you would write up and deliver without a conversation.

      4. Jess*

        Also in New Zealand – whenever I’ve resigned it’s been speaking to the manager in person and handing over a letter. And when I was in a role when I was processing employee resignations if they didn’t give us a letter we had a form for them to fill out (name, last date, reason for leaving etc.) so we had SOMETHING in writing.

    1. Whats In A Name*

      Yes, I have never written a resignation letter pre-resignation. I have always been asked for something in writing and it always was an email stating “This letter is to inform you that my last day of employment with XYZ will be Friday, May 7th. Thank you.” so they could have something official for their files.

    2. Dzhymm, BfD*

      A few jobs ago I left on good terms but they did require that I tender my resignation in writing. I simply printed out “I QUIT!” in 144-point font and signed it. Not as elegant as Nixon’s resignation letter, but it got the point across.

    3. Close Bracket*

      Eh, if my boss wanted face-to-face conversations about my continued employment there, she should maybe have initiated a few herself. Maybe if she had, I wouldn’t have ultimately handed her (or emailed her in once case) my letter of resignation.

  6. quix*

    At-Will vs Right-to-Work is apples and oranges. “Right-to-Work” is a euphemism for policies that weaken unions and worker protections.

    Montana’s deal is that in some cases, you have to have a good reason to fire an employee.

    1. Candi*

      The reason right to work started was because people, such as teachers and metal shop workers, were being forced to join the local unions in order to get jobs in their fields -and we’re talking about some expensive education. The national heads of these unions were not helping with the situation.

      Let’s digress a bit. Unions are composed of people. People can be glassbowls. Ergo, unions are not perfect, wonderful, or untouchable just because they’re unions; they can be as screwed up as any other public or private entity. And sometimes good and decent people trying to do their jobs are overwhelmed by the tide, just like anywhere else.

      Right to work has been misused. That is not a sign it’s wrong; it’s a sign that selfish humans can screw anything up, no matter how benign or helpful the intent.

      There are also stories of people who refused to join the local union, and when they needed help, the union rep basically threw them to the wolves -which does not help unions’ image. It’s the whole representing the company thing that gets talked about here. It gets particularly bad when the fired worker heard from a friend at their former work they were replaced at light speed by a union member.

      These cases are likely a tiny percentage, but they don’t help the unions’ image at all.

  7. Here we go again*

    Is there actual harm in writing a resignation letter? I would think that it would be a CYA… Like if they told you to leave as soon as you turned it in and then refused to pay you for two weeks… Or if the company tried to claim you were fired. Wouldn’t that also help in states where you could collect unemployment for that period of time?

    1. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I read it more as, don’t just write a letter and hand it to your boss. Or send an email without first having a conversation. When I resigned from two different jobs, I first spoke to my bosses and then sent a very brief email to provide the documentation (“I am resigning, my last day will be ___, thank you).

      And I believe that once you give notice, a company CAN ask you to leave and not pay you for the duration of your notice.

      1. Here we go again*

        Ahh… that makes more sense.
        I know they can just walk you out the door, but aren’t you eligible for unemployment in many states if they refuse to? Sorry, those two thoughts in my original post should’ve been side by side!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          In many states, you’d be eligible for unemployment but only for the period between when they walked you out and when you’d said your last day would be. So if you give two weeks notice and they have you leave that day without paying you for the remaining time, you could often get unemployment for those two weeks but not longer.

          1. Jessesgirl72*

            And many, many states have a waiting period before you can collect unemployment benefits of (not coincidentally) two weeks.

        2. Kyrielle*

          Unemployment, probably. But the company doesn’t have to pay you. When you come in the door, before you resign, they can fire you effective-immediately if they want to (unless Montana, and as long as no protected situations apply). They can also do that immediately after you give notice – you’re not more protected for having quit.

      2. Liane*

        No, they don’t have to pay you for a notice period they don’t let you work, although I believe that’s one of many things Alison has called out as jerky.

      3. Statler von Waldorf*

        Not in Canada!

        In Canada, if you give notice the company must accept it as is. If they change the dates (by saying today is your last day, for example) then legally it is no longer an employee quitting, but the company firing the employee. Just like all firings in Canada, that would require them either prove just cause, give proper notice, or to pay out severance.

    2. Malibu Stacey*

      I think Alison’s point was a letter isn’t really how you want to deliver the actual news, but it’s fine to shoot an email afterward saying, “Just to sum up our discussion, I have accepted a position at another org so my last day with Teapots will be Friday, June 16th. Below are a list of my open projects: ___”

        1. Sled dog mama*

          Yes, I (sort of) screwed this up at my last job. I told my direct supervisor (the one listed on all my paperwork and who actually did me performance review the previous year) that I was leaving by phone (he had been encouraging me to look and was a reference so he knew it was coming), then I sent a resignation letter to him, HR and the supervisor for my other site. I worked between two sites, different supervisor at each site, supervisor at the second site changed during my search and since I had told the first one I was looking I assumed he had passed that info on to the new one. She was totally shocked by my resignation, shouldn’t have been since her poor management was one of my major reasons for leaving. How do you become someone’s supervisor and not even introduce yourself for more than 6 months?

    3. Turquoise Cow*

      No, you can absolutely still write one. Some HR departments might require it. The last job I quit, I talked privately with my boss about my intentions and reasons, and then he went to HR, who told him they needed something, so he asked me to write a short document.

      What I absolutely did not do, however, was write a letter, throw it on his desk, and walk out in a huff. That seems to be the myth that is being addressed here.

    4. Clever Name*

      I handed my former boss a letter as I was letting him know I was resigning precisely because of this. A couple of days after I resigned, the company told me they were accepting my resignation “effective immediately”. I then got contacted by HR about COBRA (I guess for the remaining week and day of my notice period, even though I wasn’t getting insurance through my former company). It was weird, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my former boss told people they’d fired me and my other coworker who quit the same day I did.

  8. Ross*

    Is it me or does that website not work on mobiles? All I see is a blurb about Alison then dozens of ads? No article??

  9. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

    I live in a strong union area. It seems like the “not in my job description” comes up a lot here. I’ve always assumed that it’s because there is a different pay associated with the *job*, so people are careful to only do the exact job duties they are assigned to. In a union shop (from what I have experienced) the jobs have pay rates, not the people. A person is typically assigned to one position and they think of the rate for that job as their pay rate, but if they do anything else they are paid the rate for that job. Even if it’s less money.

    1. Turquoise Cow*

      I think you should definitely push back to some extent about taking on more responsibilities without more pay. However, if your boss asks you to perform a task that someone else normally does because that person is out, or it’s a task on the same level, it’s a little silly to complain that it’s not your job. There’s a line in there somewhere.

      1. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

        I completely agree. I’m just saying that’s how it seems to work. I am actually in the office and don’t work in production where this happens. When processing payroll, it’s nothing to have someone get paid 5 hours at rate a, 3 hours at rate b, 6 hours at rate c, and so on.

        I just think this lends itself easily to people thinking they “can’t” ask them to do something not in their job description.

        1. Charlotte Collins*

          Also, depending upon the contract that the union has with the employer, it might be against the rules to have certain people do certain tasks. I worked for a union company, and there was clear separation of duties that meant that union members could file a grievance if their work was given away to someone in a different position/paygrade. (Part of the issue was making sure that OT pay wasn’t being denied to union members by having a salaried employee do the work.)

    2. LQ*

      Union employees often do have a “contract” of some kind that does with the work. So they would be the exception to most employees don’t have a contract. Like I could request a job audit where they come in and check to make sure I’m not working out of class. But even in a grievance heavy environment I’d have to be really pushing it to just say “not my job” and not do it. I’d basically have to file a grievance to get out of doing the work.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yes, this. My contract forbids me from doing work that is not explicitly enumerated in the contract, which I find frustrating because I think my classification is wrong/dumb. But that said, if I want to get out of doing a task, I don’t say “not my job”—I bring it up with my supervisor, and if they persist and are interpreting the contract (imo) incorrectly, I have to grieve the issue. But there are actual union jobs where a person is breaching the CBA if asked to do work that is not within their “job description.”

    3. Bullwinkle*

      I used to work for a city government and my position was part of a union. We were actually strongly discouraged by our employer from doing things outside of our job description, because then a union grievance could be filed, which apparently was a hassle to deal with it. It meant that groups within the department were very compartmentalized, and there was no flexibility in terms of things like pitching in elsewhere when short-handed.

    4. Jessesgirl72*

      Yes, “not in my job description” isn’t a legal protection, it’s a union one. And even given the same pay rate, in my experience, the union is really strict about only the person whose job it is can do the job, and if they need someone else to do it, they need to hire another good union wage paying person of that job description to do it, not have someone else do it, even if that person is literally sitting there playing cards.

      There are sometimes processes for lending out the person to another job (and if the pay is different, the person gets the higher rate, in my experience- not whatever it is for the job.) but it’s a real process, not just on the fly, and a person can’t be doing both jobs at once, only either/or.

    5. sssssssssss*

      I work for my country’s largest union and yes, it’s very much “I shouldn’t do this, it’s not in our pay rate/job description” – and I hear this all the time, usually from folks lower on the ladder. Ppl with Job rate/description A have a #-hour day. Ppl with job rate/description B don’t have fixed hours, but are expected to put in the hours to the job done and are compensated accordingly. Job A doesn’t get daily sundry per diem; Job B does. But Job A is expected to do X, Y, Z and ppl in Job B shouldn’t be doing it (for themselves because it’s faster/more efficient, etc.) because it is the responsibility of those in Job A. It gets contentious and silly very quickly.

    6. De Minimis*

      When I used to work in a union workplace the division was between certain employee types and the work that was designated as “theirs.” You yourself would not get in trouble if you did another type of work when asked, but there would be a grievance filed somewhere down the road, and in some cases, the floor supervisors would get pressure to only allow the designated employee groups to do their own work. Employees would sometimes get caught in the middle.

      Supervisors also weren’t supposed to do bargaining unit work, I got some extra money once when I filed a grievance for that [union steward knew I’d seen it happen and asked if I wanted to file it–but it was entirely up to me.]

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        I once got yelled at for sweeping up my work area and other things like that- not from the supervisor, but from my Union Rep.

  10. Helen*

    I have a question about the “not allowed to talk about salaries” rule. At my workplace, raises are tied to your performance “score,” and we are asked not to share the amount of our raises and scores with each other. This effectively translates into not discussing salaries, because if you know what someone’s salary started at and you know what their salary is now, you know the amount of the raise and their performance score. You can’t really share salary info without the performance score being divulged, because it is so closely tied. Is my company breaking the law with this policy?

    1. CAA*

      They can ask you not to share this information, but they cannot fire you or otherwise retaliate against you if you do. They can also place limits on non-work activity that occurs during work hours.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’m not 100% confident about this but I don’ think they can even ask you not to share it, since that would be considered a chilling effect on your right to organize with coworkers.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I’m with Alison on this one. I am not a labor lawyer, but I think it’s not correct that they can ask you not to share information. (I mean, practically of course they can do that, but I’m pretty sure it still violates the NRLA—but if I’m wrong, I hope someone corrects me!)

        The NLRA has all sorts of exceptions and limitations, and things like “griping” about pay are not enough to trigger its protections. But employer policies—formal or informal—that place restrictions on your ability to speak to your coworkers about pay/salary are unlawful if the conversation can be reasonably linked to collective bargaining, mutual aid or protection.

    2. Shadow*

      The only thing they might have a right to protect as a trade secret is the formula they use to calculate those bonuses

      They don’t have a right to prohibit you from sharing what you’re paid.

      1. Helen*

        I don’t think there is any formula to calculate the score–your manager just assigns it to you, from what I can tell.

        They aren’t bonuses, they are the raise %. So people with score X get Y % raise, etc. My boss told me I was not to share what I was getting. This really bothered me, because I want to know what my colleague got, because I suspect he gets the same or better scores than I do even though I constantly finish his work and fix his mistakes! But by not being allowed to discuss it, I can’t know if I’m being fairly compensated relative to my peers.

        It bugs me and I’d be delighted if it were illegal.

        1. Shadow*

          you are almost definitely in the clear sharing the amount of your raise with co workers as that’s protected under NLRA as protected concerted activities. You’re not covered under NLRA if you share with non-employees or work for a municipal govt or religious school

          1. Observer*

            Even with non-employees, there may be protection, as the employer can’t keep you from talking to someone who might help you to organize or who can give you informati0n about your workplace rights and conditions.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Helen, I think it all turns on whether your employment category or your employer is covered by the NRLA. If they are, then what you’re describing sounds unlawful. Also, you may still be protected by state law, even if you’re not covered by the NLRA.

          Here are some links for context/information:
          NLRB, “Who is Covered by the NLRA” (I think this is a little outdated—Pres. Trump revoked the provisions that apply to federal contractors, but the other provisions still apply.)
          The Atlantic, “When the Boss Says Don’t Tell Your Coworkers How Much You Get Paid”

          1. Observer*

            The President can’t revoke statutory requirements. There were a set of rules around pay equity that were set by regulation / executive order that President Trump revoked.

        3. neverjaunty*

          Preventing you from finding out whether you are fairly paid is EXACTLY why your boss is telling you that you’re not to share.

          And it is almost certainly illegal for him to do so.

  11. NJ Anon*

    #3 I know somone who got burned by this. Never give info to HR thst you don’t want anyone to know.

    #5 I don’t know if its urban legend supposedly someone sued their former employer for giving out a bad reference which kept them from being employed and won. I think there are certain things that, while not illegal to ask, hiring managers shy away from “just in case.”

    1. DecorativeCacti*

      Our HR used to be terrible about sharing stuff you asked her to keep confidential. Even minor stuff like asking for advice on how to talk to your boss because they were rude to you but then deciding it wasn’t worth bringing up. She would run straight to that person and then it would be A Thing.

    2. Whats In A Name*

      #3 is a hard one for HR sometimes too. I had someone come to me once and requested the conversation to stay confidential. What she told me was so egregious I had to talk to my manager and her manager about it and eventually the person.

      I did tell her that up front, though, and explained why I had to do it.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      Some time back (90s) a friend explained that his father, a physician, viewed the only relevant part of a reference as the phone number. Whatever was said in writing, what mattered was the coded conversation where you could relate things like, “Candidate might do well in an environment where attention to detail doesn’t matter.” There was a real hesitation to put anything negative in print.

    4. IANAL (I Argue Nightly About Llamas)*

      Re: your comment for #5

      Maybe this was a slander/libel case? Or a case where the reference revealed information about the candidate with regards to a protected class the candidate was a part of? Even still, I would imagine that the suit would go against the hiring company who refused to hire a candidate as part of a protected class, not the provider of the information.

      This is 215% speculation btw

    5. Cyberspace Dreamer*

      Victim of this myself to a point. I was not burned directly by my HR rep but she did indirectly fan the flames by misrepresenting me in what I thought was an important but general conversation. My HR rep had the reputation for not keeping a secret anyway. I knew this when I went to her about a conflict between two managers I reported to. But I did not expect her to blow it out of proportion. A couple of people in HR told me what she said about our discussion. To say she exaggerated would be an understatement. One of those managers who already did not like me turned completely against me, so much so that she tried to have me fired for something that was not my fault. I knew it was partially in response to my meeting with HR.

      Cannot completely blame her since I initiated the discussion and many would say I asked for it. But it did get my job hunt started sooner and I probably would not have landed the job I have right now.

      Not sure if my HR REP knew that I knew, she handled my “exit interview” processed me out and we even exchanged a few emails after I left. I should send her a thank you card.

    6. Jessie the First (or second)*

      “I don’t know if its urban legend supposedly someone sued their former employer for giving out a bad reference which kept them from being employed and won”

      Well, it is probably true that at some point in the history of work that somebody sued for defamation in this context and won, but it would have to be a very very VERY different situation than any conceivable bad reference situation, so any HR that thinks they can never give bad references because of that possible lawsuit that maybe happened just…. does not understand how the law works. I mean, a negative reference is obviously not illegal and is also not something that hiring managers need to stay away from “just in case.”

      1. Jessie the First (or second)*

        I mean, anyone can sue for anything even if they can’t possibly win, and the case will get thrown out but will be a minor pain in the butt for a company, so I suppose, sure, an HR dept might be thinking of avoiding that. But I’m not a fan of that extreme level of risk aversion. It just seems like an unnecessary fear.

  12. Discordia Angel Jones*

    So the “can’t give a bad reference” thing is actually true in the UK, employers have been successfully sued for giving people bad references (even when factually based).

    This is why the reference giving convention in the UK is to stick with the minimum legal requirements of “X worked here from Y date to Z date as a Teapot Specialist”.

    Which is, I assume, why I’ve just been asked for a personal reference even though I’ve been in the workforce for 12 years.

    1. fposte*

      Can you give some examples? I’m curious, because this is what people say about the U.S. too and it’s not true here, and I’m not finding UK examples on a cursory search; I’m mostly finding stuff that sounds pretty similar to the USA (a BBC Business Q&A says “Your obligation is to provide a true, accurate and fair reference. The reference must not give a misleading impression,” for instance). It looks like there’s more complexity than in the US, in that it’s recently been decided that the Equality Act could extend to cover “post-employment victimisation” after all and that it could be considered discriminatory to give references for some but not for all, but mostly the cautions are pretty similar to the US–don’t retaliate, don’t mislead.

      1. Discordia Angel Jones*

        Honestly, I’m referring to cases I learnt about in law school, which was a good 8 years ago now.

        I’ll try and look them up and link to them, but admittedly most of my statement refers to that, and comments from my (legally educated, hiring manager) father.

        1. fposte*

          It does look like this is undergoing some shift in the UK, too, so it’s interesting to delve into.

      2. Discordia Angel Jones*

        Honestly without falling into an Employment Law Lexis Nexis black hole, the most advice I’ve found is where in the practice guide for employment references, it states this:

        “To minimise the risk of litigation concerning references, some employers choose to provide only brief, factual references, such as ‘Mr Smith worked for Jones & Co from 8 May 1974 until 26 May 2008 as an electrician. He left by reason of redundancy’. An employer is perfectly entitled to do this, as long as:

        • he provides the same type of reference to all employees and former employees (so there is no risk of a claim of discrimination), and
        • he has no specific statutory obligation to provide a fuller reference (as outlined above)”

        I think that perhaps my mind went to case law which it shouldn’t have, when really companies here tend to give the basic reference because 1) they don’t want to mislead the person they are giving the reference to, even unintentionally, 2) they don’t want to prejudice the person they are giving the reference about either – whether or not the reference is factually true, legal contests are expensive and time consuming (even if they were to eventually win) and 3) it’s just easier to give the bog standard reference for everyone.

        1. fposte*

          Yeah, I think that’s fairly common advice in the U.S. as well; it’s the most employer-protective policy, certainly, at least in the short run.

    2. Koko*

      A quick Google search shows that a bad reference can be given in the UK. This from a BBC News legal expert:

      “You owe a duty of care to the ex-employee in providing a reference to a prospective employer. Your duty is to take reasonable care in the preparation of the reference and you will be liable to the employee in negligence if you fail to do so and the employee suffers loss or damage as a result.

      Your obligation is to provide a true, accurate and fair reference. The reference must not give a misleading impression. However, as long as the reference is accurate and does not tend to mislead, there is no obligation on you to set out great detail or to be comprehensive.

      Essentially, this means you must be able to substantiate the comments you have made in the reference with hard evidence and you must not give misleading information, whether by the selective provision of information or by the inclusion of information in a manner that would lead a reasonable recipient to draw a false or mistaken inference. For example, you should not allude to an employee’s misconduct if you have never carried out an investigation into that misconduct and you do not therefore have reasonable grounds for believing in that misconduct.”

      1. Discordia Angel Jones*

        Thanks for that. I would agree that in most cases where an employee has been fired for gross misconduct or otherwise investigated for it, then of course there is an exception there, but where an employee has generally performed poorly, but not to the level of actual misconduct, then it’s different.

        Giving a reference where you say “X was fired for stealing from the till” is different from saying “X had a bad attitude and basically sucked” type of thing.

        Perhaps my wording in my initial comment wasn’t the best choice of wording.

        1. Koko*

          Purely subjective assessments like “bad attitude” might be tricky, but it seems like the reference giver would be in the clear to say things like, “Employee was routinely late,” “Employee missed a business-critical deadline,” “Employee was managed out due to poor performance,” and other things that fall short of gross misconduct, so long as they had some sort of supporting evidence, like attendance records, email trail proving deadline being missed, PIP documentation, and stuff like that.

          1. kab*

            And to add to this, there are some workplaces (usually small businesses) that get upset when an employee quits and will give a bad reference to retaliate. It’s not common, but this situation does exist.

  13. Professor Ronny*

    >>Myth: Your boss needs to have a good reason for firing you.

    You need the usual caveat about unless your contract or company policy says otherwise. As a tenured professor, my boss would need a good reason to fire me and, even then, only certain kinds of reasons would work. When I was a department chair, I did fire a tenured faculty member so it can be done and it was fairly easy given the very good reason I had.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Yeah, there may not be any laws governing this process, but I’ve worked in many places that have their own internal processes that necessitate PIPs and significant documentation before someone can be fired.

      1. Clever Name*

        Exactly. So many people think “it’s illegal” when really it’s just against many company’s policies.

      2. Shadow*

        to stand any chance in court though you’ll need a believable reason to fire someone. Anything else just sounds like pretext.

        1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

          If you’re in the United States, though, there’s no need to worry about defending a firing in court unless the employee brings a lawsuit alleging discrimination, which can be very difficult to prove. So there’s really no need to worry about pretext.

          1. Observer*

            That’s not true though. Employees can, and DO sue. And even in the current climate I have no doubt that the relevant state and federal agencies will continue to sue.

            1. neverjaunty*

              And those employees will still have to present actual evidence that their firing was done for an illegal reason.

              1. Observer*

                That actually depends. If you look at some of the cases, it’s clear that you don’t have to have iron-clad proof. For instance if you fire someone the week after they tell you that they need FMLA leave, and you get sued, you are going to be in the hot seat to prove that your stated reason for firing was not pretextual. If that person has had good reviews till that time, that would work against you. If other people have done things similar to what you claim was the cause for firing, you’re going to have a problem. etc.

                1. MegaMoose, Esq.*

                  Certainly lawsuits happen, and certainly employees win them sometimes, but Shadow’s comment made it sound like every firing requires some sort of justification to avoid claims of pretext, and that just doesn’t reflect the reality of most firings (in the US). I think you’re really overestimating how easy it is to prove discrimination. There was recently a case in my state where the plaintiff was *explicitly told* that the reason she wasn’t hired was because she didn’t disclose her pregnancy during her initial job interview, and she still didn’t win at trial.

  14. MindoverMoneyChick*

    Maybe readers of U.S. News believe these myths, but regular readers of AAM have long been disabused of these notions ;)

    Knowing what “hostile workplace” legally means from this blog has been one of the most helpful tidbits for me. A few years ago when a co-worker was being hostile to me in the normal meaning of the term, I did have people telling me to go to HR to says this was a hostile workplace. I generally explained with a sense of exasperation that wasn’t how it legally how it worked at all. It was hard to get people to believe me.

    1. Clever Name*

      I wonder if certain companies expand the definition of “hostile workplace” for their own purposes. I remember my husband was caught up in an investigation of some sort when a coworker was basically being persecuted for no reason other than one person didn’t like them. My husband actually used the words “hostile workplace” when describing the situation, but to my knowledge his coworker’s treatment wasn’t sexual harassment- people were just being jerks to him and pushed him out of his job.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        “Hostile workplace” can include other forms of discrimination, too! But it does have to be linked to discrimination that is federally prohibited (e.g., race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sex, real or perceived disability, age, etc.).

        But I agree that it’s confusing because it sounds like it refers to all kinds of hostility, not just the narrow legal definition.

    2. IANAL (I Argue Nightly About Llamas)*

      I always imagine people talking about a “hostile workplace” like Michael Scott declaring bankruptcy. You don’t just say the magic words and expect something to happen.

  15. Jesca*

    While there are no Federal blanket laws on giving bad references, the laws in many states can vary over what can be disclosed and how. For instance, there was a man who worked at a news station in one state whonwas fired for crazy behavior and I think assault. This man turned around and got another job in another state and was that guy who shot that reporter on live television. The state he left didnt necessarily have strict laws opposing speaking out against an employee, but the states defimation laws were very loose. I think a lot of employers just recognize these decisions are decided at state level and its just easier and less drama to ere on the far side of caution. Especially in companies with many satelite offices.

    1. Whats In A Name*

      In that case, the company he worked for actually had a policy to not give a bad reference, just dates. And while the law doesn’t require you give a good reference, it doesn’t compel you to give a good one either.

      Unfortunately, the example above is the worst case outcome of not understanding the law.

      If you happen to work in media you probably also know the reference checking is fairly loose to say the least, especially if you are hiring out of company/market because of the role contracts play with talent, etc.

      1. Jesca*

        It doesnt come down to not understanding the law. I think that is completely disingenuous to the lawyers and senior HR who write those policies. They have a clear understanding of the outcomes. States vary on this, and my whole point is that they ere on the side of caution. Mostly I think it comes down to does it matter anymore if Fergus was late a lot? Is that worth a frivulous lawsuit that may or may not be thrown out? And even who really wants to be tbe person who gets their employer sued? A lot of employers thus only verify employment and whether you were fired or gave notice. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with this logic, I’m just saying I can understand why many employers don’t. Not everything that is legal means you won’t get sued for it in civil court.thats all pretty basic business law.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      This is so wild. The truth is an absolute defense against a defamation claim. I think employers get nervous (or their very unhelpful attorneys make them nervous) and then create made up limitations in order to avoid (1) giving honest feedback about an uncomfortable situation and (2) (theoretically) being sued.

      I find this approach . . . ineffective, because someone who wants to sue you will sue you regardless of what kind of reference you give out. I think employers mistakenly think that adopting limited reference policies will insulate them from suit, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence to support that theory.

  16. Bend & Snap*

    I quit my last job with a letter of resignation and a transition plan in hand, but obviously gave the news verbally.

    They implemented every recommendation in my plan and thanked me for showing I cared when I was on my way out.

    So yes, verbal notice is good, but written documents can be valuable too, if applicable.

  17. Sfigato*

    Myth: Your boss needs to have a good reason for firing you.

    I worked for a company that fired a TON of people, and almost none of them were given PIPs or warning. The bosses decided they didn’t feel the employee was a good fit, and all of a sudden the employee is sending out an email saying they are leaving to pursue new opportunities. It was not great for morale.

    1. Bend & Snap*

      My ex works for a corporate branch of a company that rhymes with Fanheuseur Smoosh, and has his job because the year he was hired, the branch fired the entire sales force for low performance and started from scratch with a new one. Fairly amazing but apparently it was needed and they hired exclusively from competitors. The sales force my ex is in is unionized, where its predecessor was not.

  18. Shadow*

    You can’t be fired because of 1st amendment free speech made on or off work

    Companies maintain a hiring blacklist

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      You can most certainly be fired for speech your employer doesn’t like. You can’t be arrested solely on the words in most cases, but you can be fired.

      Companies can maintain a hiring blacklist, but that is a separate question.

    2. Gazebo Slayer*

      Uh, no. (The first sentence. I’m not sure about the second – probably plenty of companies do.) That’s not what “free speech” means. Did you even read the article?

    3. TeapotSweaterCrocheter*

      I work in HR, and companies (multiple companies that I have worked for) absolutely maintain hiring blacklists. That being said, they’re more about former employees who worked for us and were fired for egregious misconduct, so that we would never rehire them, and less about other companies telling us not to hire someone who used to work for them.

  19. LabTech*

    I actually had an HR person in my last position who seemed offended that I didn’t go to her about my job offer prior to disclosing it to my boss. She claimed she would have been completely confidential and didn’t understand why I “couldn’t trust her.”

    As you can guess, this person was not at all deserving of trust, and was an all around terrible person who treated employees like they should be thankful for having the privileged of working for them and refused to acknowledge that our state had laws regarding vacation payout and payday time lines. I was so caught off guard by the ridiculous notion of trusting them that I had completely lost my train of thought.

  20. ...with a K*

    My husband and I were just discussing this topic (you can be fired as long as it’s not for protected class) the other day. He had a co-worker that was on maternity leave when the company (Federal Govt, in Canada) were in the middle of a “workforce adjustment” aka laying people off. The woman on mat leave was affected and she fought it because she was on mat leave. Employer backed down and removed her job from the layoff list because she fought it. My opinion was that they have the right to do that because she wasn’t laid off due to the pregnancy, her job was affected regardless of her leave status. I’m assuming they were just trying to avoid the fight due to the “optics”.

    1. ...with a K*

      …so my point is that the myth is that “you can’t be let go when you’re on maternity leave” but I think you can as long as it’s not BECAUSE you’re on maternity leave. Thoughts?

      1. Statler von Waldorf*

        I believe that is correct in Canada, with the exception of Ontario, which has stronger parental leave job protection laws than the other provinces.

      2. NJ Anon*

        Agree. We let someone go who was on indefinite disability. She seemed surprised and said she didnt think she could be fired for being sick. I said you weren’t; you were fired for not being in the office. In reality she also did not stay in touch or send the requisite doctors notes or have any idea when or if she would be back. We are very small- 13 staff- and couldn’t just keep her job open any longer.

        1. Just Jess*

          This sounds interesting to me. You’d be too small for FMLA and ADA to apply at 13, but any bigger and you might need to handle that situation differently. In hindsight, would you change anything about how you handled the situation or have you put anything in place for next time something like that comes up?

          1. paul*

            Not if it’s indefinite; FMLA is limited to a set number of weeks (like 12?) per year. Ditto the ADA.

            Having someone simply be…out…for ages past FMLA leave probably wouldn’t be viewed as a reasonable accommodation even for a large employer.

          2. Anonymity*

            Same general situation and outcome happened here, much larger employer. Employee made full use of his FMLA, accrued vacation time, and was given unpaid leave to fill in the gaps. He was great when he was here, but whether or not he’d be here on any given day was up in the air, and eventually he was never here and they finally let him go.

      3. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That’s correct. You can fire someone who’s on maternity leave as long as the reason you’re firing them isn’t the leave itself (and as long as a reasonable person wouldn’t be able to argue successfully that it was).

  21. Brett*

    I think the “good reason to fire” myth comes from people confounding workplace protections with unemployment benefits. If your boss wants to fire you _and_ have you disqualified from unemployment, then they are going to need something other than an arbitrary termination.

  22. Sami*

    Alison- I wish you had included “illegal” interview questions that actually are NOT illegal.
    I see that quite often in “how to get a job” or “ace your interview” or general job hunting articles. I always post in the comments from what I’ve learned from you and someone always argues with me about it.

      1. Greg*

        I think in this and a few of the other cases you cited (firing for cause, bad references), the actions are not illegal, but many companies have policies against them in order to avoid potential legal headaches. In other words, even if the company would be likely to win a lawsuit against a former employee who sued for defamation over a bad reference, they’d rather just institute a blanket policy and foreclose the possibility of it ever happening.

    1. hermit crab*

      Ugh, the head of HR at our company held a lunch-and-learn on recruiting/hiring a while back and there was a whole section devoted to “illegal interview questions” (all the classic ones that get discussed here, that are bad ideas but aren’t actually illegal). I spoke up and tried to gently suggest that maybe she meant “inappropriate interview questions” or “interview questions that are against company policy” but no — instead I got a talking to about how they are ILLEGAL and why am I telling people it’s ok to BREAK THE LAW. Gah.

    2. Recruit-o-rama*

      When I conduct intereview training for new managers, I tell them they are not allowed to ask certain questions. Although I don’t use the word “illegal” I certainly don’t clarify my point because asking the questions and then not hiring someone, even if it is for a legitimate reason, is a big risk. I understand the nuance of not being legally allowed to ask vs. not being legally allowed to use the responses to make a hiring decision, but I’m not sure many of the hiring managers I work with do so I’m intentionally vague so they don’t ask the questions. Who needs the headache? It’s mostly irrelevant information in regards to making a hiring decision anyway.

      I do remember conducting this training in a very small very rural southern town and when I told them, for example, not to ask where a candidate goes to church, they all kind of snickered and said they already know where everyone goes to church so there isn’t a need to ask anyway. It was a little culture mismatch for me as I live in a very large city without that very churchy kind of culture.

  23. KR*

    Regarding letters of resignation… I had an employee that left pretty much. They were not working any more, they had another job, and if they were scheduled for something they found coverage and didn’t go, and had expressed to me they were trying to phase out of the job. So they hadn’t been working for a few months and I told my boss we needed to hire another person to replace this person. Boss didn’t want to because coworker hadn’t handed in a letter of resignation even though it was obvious she didn’t want to work and wasn’t working with us.
    Finally a few months I asked coworker to just send me an email and CC boss saying that they wanted to be taken off the payroll and that did the trick.

  24. Dawn*

    I used to work at a very toxic place, and the receptionist was the worst. One of my fellow previous co-workers was in the running for an especially nice job, so they gave contact information for HR at our previous place of employment. The person called for the reference, the receptionist claimed to be HR, and gave a brutal reference. Luckily, it was an attorneys office and every call is recorded, my friend emailed HR asking WTF, HR pulled the call logs. The attorneys office settled out of court (surprise). My friend ultimately got the job, but it was a really messed up scenario.

  25. Rivakonneva*

    I resigned from my first ever job (McDonald’s!) by telling my manager that night. I gave him two weeks verbal notice, and told him I had a job offer where I would make 50 cents an hour more. (Back then that was good money.) :)

    The SOB didn’t pass the word along and simply dropped me off the schedule. When I went in to return the uniform a few weeks later a different manager asked why I quit without notice. I cleared things up, and ever since then I have handed in a letter when I resign. Better safe than sorry!

  26. Greg*

    #1 reminded me of a funny story. My first job out of college, I had decided to quit a few weeks before, but was waiting to make it official based on my vacation schedule. In the meantime, our corporate owner installed a “consultant” over my boss (with whom I was close), a move that was clearly designed to force him out.

    The afternoon before I was planning on resigning, I typed up a formal letter and then left it in my desk, planning on giving it to my boss the next morning. We had a company event that night, so on our way there my boss and I stopped to grab a bite.

    Over dinner, he told me, “So, I just quit today.”

    I started cracking up. “What’s so funny?”

    “I’m quitting tomorrow!”

    The next day, I went in and told the consultant I was quitting. Never got around to giving him the letter.

  27. Newbie*

    #1 makes me laugh, because I did exactly that. I handed my boss a neatly typed resignation letter and his jaw dropped.

    In my defense, getting a meeting with my boss was impossible. For more than 6 months, I’d been trying to sit down with him to discuss something & was promised ‘soon’ but it never materialized. This was part of the reason why I was leaving. I had to laugh when I got a meeting with *his* boss in less than 48 hours. Of course by then, it was too late.

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