10 Shattered Myths About Workplace Rights

Test your knowledge of what your boss can and cannot do.

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Alison Green
Most people think they know what rights they have at work—but they're wrong frequently. Workplace law isn't always intuitive, and just because something is unkind doesn't mean it's illegal.

Check out these common myths concerning workplace rights, and test your own knowledge of what your boss can and cannot do.

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1. Myth: It's illegal for an interviewer to ask about your religion, national origin, marital status, number of children, etc.

Fact: In most states, the act of asking these questions itself is not illegal. What is illegal is basing a hiring decision on the answers to these questions. So since an employer can't factor in your answers, there's no point in asking them, and smart interviewers don't go near these topics. (Note that it is illegal to ask about disabilities, however.)

2. Myth: It's illegal for employers to provide a detailed reference, or any information beyond confirming job title and dates of employment.

Fact: It's legal for an employer to give a detailed reference, including negative information, as long as it's factually accurate. That said, some companies do have policies against giving references, but these policies are easily worked around; most reference-checkers don't have difficulties obtaining references, no matter what the official policies say.

3. Myth: If your boss bullies you, you can sue under "hostile workplace" laws.

Fact: Bullying or being a jerk is bad management, but it's not illegal. The exception: If your boss is being a jerk to you because of your race, gender, religion, or other protected class, then you do have legal protection. But 99 percent of jerky bosses act like jerks just because they are, and that is legal.

4. Myth: Employers are required to provide paid time off.

Fact: No state or federal law requires paid vacation time. A very small number of jurisdictions require paid sick leave, but the majority of Americans live in places not covered by those laws. Of course, most employers offer paid vacation and sick days anyway to be competitive and attract good employees—but there's a difference between what's smart and customary, and what's legal.

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5. Myth: Your employer can't just reassign you to different duties or to a whole new job.

Fact: Unless you have a contract that says otherwise, your employer can change your job dramatically, including restructuring it completely. Saying "no" may mean saying no to working at the company.

6. Myth: An employer can't require you to attend work-related events outside of regular work hours.

Fact: You can indeed be required to attend events outside of your normal hours, including trainings, meetings, and even parties. However, if you're a non-exempt employee, then you must be paid for time you're required to participate in work-related activities.

7. Myth: Employers must provide you with breaks during the workday.

Fact: No federal law requires that workers receive lunch or other breaks. Some states require breaks, but most do not.

8. Myth: You can sue if your boss makes an offensive or discriminatory remark to you.

Fact: One remark on its own isn't enough for a discrimination lawsuit. Instead, a suit requires offensive conduct so severe that it alters the terms of your employment.

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9. Myth: Your employer must warn you before you're fired.

Fact: No law requires employees receive warning before being fired. In fact, your boss can tell you that you're doing a great job every day for 300 days straight and then fire you on day 301 without any warning at all.

10. Myth: Your boss must have a justifiable reason for firing you.

Fact: Your employer can fire you for any reason at all or for no reason, as long as you're not being fired because of your membership in a legally protected class (race, religion, nationality, sex, marital status, disability, and so forth). You can even be fired because your boss doesn't like your laugh or the color of your shirt.

There are two exceptions: one, if you have a contract, which most people in the United States do not; or two, if your company has an employee manual that commits to always using specific disciplinary procedures before firing someone. In the later case, your company is generally obligated to follow those procedures first.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.

Twitter: @AskAManager