Myth About Workplace Rights By Alison Green

Feb 14 '12

Think you have that workplace right? Think again!

By Alison Green



Most people think they know what rights they have at work – but they’re frequently wrong. Workplace law isn’t always intuitive, and just because something is unkind or bad management doesn’t mean it’s illegal.


Check out these common myths about workplace rights, and test your own knowledge of what your boss can and can’t do.


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


Fact: In 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.)


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 a reference, as long as it’s factually accurate. (That said, some companies do have policies that they won’t give references, but these policies are easily gotten 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 to this: 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% of jerky bosses act like jerks just because they are, and that’s 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 in order to be competitive and attract good employees — but there’s a difference between what’s smart and customary and what’s legal.


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

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


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, meeting, and even parties. However, if you’re a non-exempt employee, 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 be given lunch or other breaks. Some states require breaks, but most don’t.


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 or pervasive” that it “alters the terms and conditions of employment.”


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


Fact: No law requires that employees be warned 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 the 301st day without any warning at all.


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


Fact: Your employer can fire you for any reason at all or 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 be fired because your boss doesn’t like your laugh or the color of your shirt. Or you can be fired without being given any reason at all.


There are two exceptions to this: (1) if you have a contract, which most people in the U.S. don’t, or (2) if your company has an employee manual that commits to always using specific disciplinary procedures before firing someone; in that case, it’s generally obligated to follow those procedures first.

 About Alison

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog (link to, 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.