Employees’ Rights: What You Can – and Can’t – Legally Ask Your Employees

By Benjamin Shepardson - Jul. 1, 2019
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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Benjamin Shepardson. His opinions are his own. 

No business gets very far without dedicated employees. It’s just a fact. Yeah, it’s important to have a good captain behind the wheel, but without a good crew you’re pretty much sharkbait. This means you’ve got to strike a balance between getting the most out of your employees while also respecting their rights as defined by law.

This can be a real pain sometimes. Employment law tends to have more twists and turns than the plot of a soap opera. Making things worse is the fact that on top of federal employee rights there are also state-specific employment laws that you also need to abide by. Before you decide to pull all your hair out, though, we’ve got a surprise for you: feast your eyes on our guide to employee’s rights. Here’s what you need to know about what you can legally ask of your employees — and what you can’t.

The Full Monty

Employment law covers an absolute ton of rights and obligations when it comes to the relationship you have with your employees. This goes far beyond just the people you’ve got on the books right now. In fact, employment law also applies to people applying to positions within your company, even though they haven’t been hired yet and might not ever be hired. On top of that, former employees also have a number of legal rights that you’ve got to respect as well.

When it comes to what’s under the very large umbrella of employment law, there are subjects that you would expect to be there like workplace safety requirements. Subjects like wages and overtime are also closely regulated. Beyond that, though, employee rights also extend into things like the limits of employee privacy, what constitutes discrimination and wrongful termination, what protections are provided to whistleblowers — the list goes on and on. Let’s break it down a bit, shall we?

General Protections Afforded to Employees

For the most part, employee rights are really straightforward. General protections such as the right to a safe workplace just make sense. You shouldn’t expect your employees to work in dangerous conditions or in ways that would expose them to potential safety hazards like toxic substances unless you provide adequate safety equipment. Other rights, like being compensated fairly for the work your employees perform, are controlled by state and federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

More complex rights include being free from discrimination on the job. While this can vary slightly from state to state, laws preventing discrimination on the basis of religion, race and/or ethnicity, age, and even sexuality or gender expression are also common to the point of universal. Finally, so-called whistleblower protections, the right to be free from retaliation or for filing a claim or complaint against an employer for violating the law, are also commonplace.

A Word on Workplace Privacy

Guess what? The topic of workplace privacy is important enough for its own section. In just about every state, your employees have a right to privacy while they’re at work. That means you can’t go snooping through private mail addressed exclusively to an employee, you can’t toss any storage lockers if they’re for an employee’s exclusive use, and you have to keep your mitts off of any personal possessions stored in a briefcase, handbag, or any other type of storage bag.

That’s not all though. In some jurisdictions, any conversations employees have over the telephone are also afforded privacy protections. This extends to voicemail messages they receive as well. However, the one place that employees may not have as much privacy when it comes to company email or internet use while at work. These rights are much more limited, and in many states, anything an employee sends from a work computer is fair game.

Job Applicants are People Too

It may seem odd at first glance, but job applicants are also afforded certain rights. Even if you don’t end up hiring them for substantive reasons (like they just aren’t experienced enough for the position), applicants share many of the rights that employees have when it comes to being free from discrimination on the basis of religion, national origin, race, gender, or age.

How does this work in practice? Well, you can’t ask job applicants probing questions about their family dynamic or ask them to divulge information regarding their personal health. You also need to receive written permission before you can run a background check or a credit check on a job applicant. That being said, there’s a lot of gray areas when it comes to what constitutes discrimination during the hiring process and what doesn’t.

The Feds Want a Piece of the Action

Just when you thought you had a handle on your local employment laws, the US government has to get involved. In fact, federal protections for employees are the high-water mark for employee rights, as these nationwide laws apply to employees only if state laws provide even more protection. That’s why you’re stuck paying employees at where your state’s minimum wage law is set if it’s higher than the current federal minimum.

So which are the most important federal laws to keep in mind? Here’s a nice sample for you.

  • Title VII: If you’ve got 15 or more employees, then you’re prohibited from using a job applicant’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin as a basis for discriminating against hiring them.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act: The ADA makes it clear that if someone with a disability can still perform the essential functions of a job, you can’t discriminate against them because of their disability.
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act: If your company has 20 employees or more, you’re not allowed to discriminate against workers over the age of 39 by providing preferential treatment to younger workers. Don’t worry: you can still favor older workers over younger ones, though.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act: These regulations control salary and overtime requirements as a federal baseline. It also covers how many breaks your employees must have on any given day, based on how long they work that day.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act: If you have an employee that’s worked for you for at least 1,250 hours over the last 12 months, that employee is entitled to a legal leave of absence for up to 12 weeks for qualified medical purposes. In other words, you can’t fire someone for at least three months if they need to take time off for medical reasons.

Treat Employees Right and they Won’t Do You Dirty

Meeting your legal obligations to your employees might be difficult, but you really don’t have a choice in the matter. Keep in mind, though, that employees who are treated right are better, more motivated, and more engaged than workers who are treated badly. In other words, respecting employee’s rights isn’t just the law: it’s also a good idea.


Benjamin Shepardson

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