Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
When I started a workplace advice column 13 years ago, I didn’t realize how often the questions I’d receive would be rooted in a widespread lack of knowledge about the legal rights Americans do and don’t have at work. Every week—probably every day—I receive questions from people who either don’t realize something their employer is doing is flagrantly illegal or who think they have way more rights than American labor law actually gives them.
I’ve been asked whether it’s legal for an employer to ban gambling in the office, require overtime, make you pick up your boss’s lunch, insist you use your vacation days, fire someone via email, require you to come to work if you skip the company cruise, ban fish from being microwaved in the office kitchen, cross-train someone else in your work, make you feel guilty about not coming in on the weekend, and much, much more. (All these things are legal, although the overtime might have to be paid.)
One of the biggest areas of confusion is around whether it’s legal for your manager or a colleague to be, basically, a jerk. If you’ve heard the legal term hostile workplace, you might assume that means you don’t have to be subjected to a hostile environment at work. But the words are slightly misleading; to be illegal, the hostile conduct must be based on your race, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information, and it must be “severe or pervasive.” If your boss is just a jerk to you because he’s a jerk to everyone, or because he hates your tie, that’s legal. It’s unwise and unkind, and it’s bad management, but it’s not against the law.
I suspect the root of the disconnect is that people assume employment laws are there to hold employers to a bar of reasonable behavior. But in fact, the employment laws we have are more of a bare minimum. When you expect labor law to do more than that, you’ll usually come away disappointed. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason anti-union sentiment is so strong in the U.S. is at least partly because people assume they’re protected by far more laws than actually exist.)
And yet, at the same time, American workers are often largely unaware of the rights they do have. One of the biggest is the right to discuss your salary and working conditions with your co-workers—a right given to (most) employees under the National Labor Relations Act, the same law that protects unionizing. But an astounding number of employers have policies prohibiting salary discussions with co-workers, and they get away with it because their employees don’t realize such policies are flagrantly illegal.
Employees also often don’t realize that their employer can’t delay their paychecks (state laws usually set out a specific time period in which wages must be received after work was performed), or that they can’t be retaliated against for making a good-faith report of discrimination or harassment, or that it’s not up to their employer’s discretion whether they receive overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours a week (it depends on how the government classifies the type of work an employee does), and plenty more.
In fairness to employees, employers frequently break these laws, and employees don’t always have much recourse when that happens. Lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming. But much of the time, simply knowing the law and calmly asserting it can get a company to change course. Not always, but enough of the time that it’s worth it to know your rights.
Of course, many people don’t know their legal rights in other areas of life too—they don’t know that they aren’t obligated to consent to a police search or even that they can request a private pat-down at the airport. It’s not a problem that’s just confined to work.
But when people know so little about laws that have an enormous impact on their experiences and quality of life, we’ve failed them in a fundamental way. And sure, this information is out there for people who think to go looking for it. But even then, it’s rare to find it all compiled in one place. There have been some efforts to address this in small ways (think of those labor law posters employers are required to hang on their walls) or through, you know, unions, but at the end of the day, we’re still a nation of workers who think our companies can’t ban fish in the office microwave and who don’t realize we have recourse when a paycheck is late.