Over the course of a long and interesting career, most people will have a wide variety of bosses and employers. Some are incredibly hands-off and prefer for teams to handle everything independently while others micro-manage compulsively. Some employers let their staff decorate their desks up to the point of actually bedazzling them while others are incredibly strict about clear surfaces and no personal effects. While most people know what it’s like to have a difficult job or a boss you don’t get along with, there’s a huge gap between stylistic differences and workplace abuse. If you believe that the rules or activities in your workplace have begun to violate your rights as an employee, chances are that you’re correct.
However, the vast majority of employees are not comfortable and may not even be safe to simply confront their boss or employer about a situation that’s bothering them. You may feel that you need solid grounds before leveling a complaint or filing a lawsuit.
The Right to HR Confidentiality
There are a number of documents and a certain amount of personal information about you that you would not share with strangers but is in the possession of your company’s HR department. Your driver’s license number, your medical insurance information, your family status, and your home address are among the information that an employer has but that you certainly don’t want passed around. You might even want to keep your work history or previous experiences private and have a right to do that as a private citizen. However, HR managers don’t always follow the rules when it comes to confidentiality and this can be either a good-natured accident or malicious damaging actions.
Good natured information sharing might include passing around your resume without your knowledge or permission, making content in your private files a public conversation topic without considering the privacy violation, or leaving your documents in plain sight on their desk. Less good natured failures of confidentiality might include spreading rumors based on information in your files, putting you at risk of identity theft by publically posting some of your documents, or even using your information to smear your reputation with potential future employers.
Privacy in the Workplace
Companies before the civil rights and fair labor acts often felt that they could take ownership of their employees as if they had become subjects of a new nation rather than professionals working for a paycheck. To this effect, employers have seen themselves as absolute authorities able to not just direct work, but also invade the lives and privacy of their employees. Sometimes employers believe that everything about you while you’re at work is their business. The fact of the matter is that this is legally untrue.
First, you have a right to protect your personal effects and keep them private. Employers cannot search your briefcase, purse, coat, backpack, or other personal items without your express permission which you do not have to give. If you have a locker that is used only by you, then that is also protected and employers are not allowed to crack into it to rummage through your things. If your employer has dumped your purse or looked through your locker even once, and especially if your items were made public to other staff, they have made a serious rights violation.
Companies are allowed to monitor communication and activities that happen on their workstations and devices. This means that emails you read or send, web pages you visit, and even phone conversations are generally not protected. However, you do still have certain rights. Private snail-mail addressed to you cannot be opened or tampered with, messages you send from your personal phone are not theirs to monitor, and personal phone calls, even made on company phones, cannot be monitored without your permission. Companies are also not allowed to listen to, disclose, delete, or prevent you from accessing your voicemail.
The Right to Know About Background Checks
When you are interviewing for a position, often this will be contingent on a check of your credit report and criminal background, something you usually give permission for in the job application itself. However, that permission is not always applicable after you give it once. Your employer must ask you every time they want to run a credit or background check and receive permission to do so with the option of giving you a copy when they run it. This prevents employers from ‘stalking’ their staff members by constantly checking up on their financial health and private legal problems.
Enacting stealth background and credit checks without both written notification and your express permission is a violation of your rights.
Freedom from Harassment
When most people talk about harassment in the workplace, it relates to one of the handful of anti-discrimination laws that have been put into place to protect certain often disadvantaged groups from suffering as a result of biased decisions at work. We talked a great deal about what this might look like and what defines workplace discrimination in our previous article about employee civil rights. However, harassment doesn’t actually have to relate to your race, color, nationality, culture, family status, or disabilities to be legally actionable. If a co-worker makes fun of your name every time they see you, if they mock you for being short (but not disability-short), or if they spread nasty rumors about you to other coworkers and business partners, this is harassment and HR is obligated to do something.
From suggesting that you’re too incompetent for a raise to throwing away your favorite mug, employees have a right to a non-hostile work environment and your employer is required to step in where a ‘dispute’ has turned into open and continuous harassment. If they do not, then both the harasser and your employer are at fault.
Safe working environments is another one of those issues that most people have written off as a Dickensian horror story. Surely there aren’t places with exposed wires, high walkways with no railings, or constantly wet floors anymore because the widespread policy of auditing keeps companies on their toes, right? Unfortunately, some businesses looking to lower overhead the ‘fast’ way find ways around audits and inspections and aren’t shy about asking employees to work in an unsafe environment if it saves a buck.
An employee’s first job when they notice something unsafe is to tell their manager or closest safety officer. If nothing is done at that point and you escalate to HR and nothing is still done, this means the safety problem is actually an unspoken company policy and your workplace has put themselves in a very vulnerable legal position. Especially if someone gets hurt.
Reasonable Hours and Fair Wages
Another way that companies tend to cut corners when they think no one is looking is scheduling and wages that could be seen as active punishment. For those familiar with the brutal realities of abusive retail scheduling, employers may not be able to deny you breaks or schedule more than a certain number of hours a week, but they have been known to schedule a single employee on back-to-back shifts for 18 hours straight. Others in more traditionally salaried positions may be asked to work unpaid or excessive overtime without complaint or denied an opportunity to earn industry-standard wages for the position.
While companies generally have a fairly free hand in scheduling and wages, when the treatment becomes comparatively unfair, abusive, or punitive or if wages are kept artificially low despite employee performance, this is a violation of employee rights.
Finally, while we could write books on whistle-blower rights and policies, let’s just touch briefly on your rights as a whistle-blower. If have noticed violations of employee rights in the workplace and brought them to the attention of your manager or HR department, the ideal situation is that things change immediately to correct a previously unnoticed problem.
However, if instead, you face a reduction in responsibility, salary, position, or if you are punitively fired for speaking up, your employer has just violated whistle-blower rights. These rights allow you to identify and ask for solutions to bias, discrimination, mistreatment, and safety hazards in the workplace without retaliation, thus preventing companies from simply firing anyone who complains while keeping everyone left in terrible conditions.
Have your rights as an employee been violated? Have you been mistreated by an employer, terminated, or denied opportunities for demographic discrimination, personal reasons, or reasons beyond your understanding? If so, Aiman-Smith and Marcy are here to help you along every step of the way to getting you compensation and forcing your employer to face the consequences of their actions. For more information about defending employee rights or to find an experienced employee rights attorney, contact us today!