As a nation, Americans love to talk about their right to do just about whatever they please. We go where we want to go, say what we want to say, wear what we want to wear—and anyone who contradicts us on this topic is likely to receive an earful. It’s only natural to assume that the constitutionally protected freedoms we enjoy at home extend to the workplace as well. Unfortunately, this assumption is frequently wrong.
Employees do enjoy certain legal protections at the workplace, but so do their bosses; and when the needs of the two conflict, the rights of management often take precedence. In this piece, we’ll address some of the more common myths about workplace protections (or the lack thereof).
- Myth: Your employer can’t fire you without a good reason
The truth is that your boss can fire you for almost any reason. In fact, they don’t even need a reason at all. It’s called at-will employment—meaning that you remain employed only at the will of your employer. You could be fired because the boss thinks you type too loud, because he doesn’t like your taste in music, or because his astrologer advised him to get rid of you.
Exception: a termination may be illegal if it can be shown that the firing is a discriminatory action based on the worker’s race, gender, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, or other protected characteristic.
- Myth: Your employer is required by law to give you advance notice of a layoff
This is not necessarily true either. Many people find this out the hard way when their boss calls them into the office and suddenly breaks the news that they don’t have to come to work any more. In general, a last-minute layoff is probably legal.
Exception: certain mass layoffs may require advance notice by law.
- Myth: Your employer can’t legally fire you if the employee handbook promises to terminate your employment only for good cause
In a number of states, a promise of this nature in the employee handbook may constitute an “implied contract,” which means that the principle of at-will employment would no longer apply, but Georgia typically does not recognize implied employment contracts. In other words, you might not be able to count on vague promises in your employee handbook to help you in a wrongful termination action.
- Myth: You have First Amendment free speech protections in the workplace
The first amendment protects us from government, but not from private employers, so freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily mean freedom from the consequences of that speech. If your boss doesn’t appreciate something you’ve said, he or she can probably give you the boot for it.
Government employees do benefit from some legal protections in this area—but even so, the scope of the protection is limited.
Exception: speech relating to union activity, including the potential formation of a union, is legally protected.
- Myth: Your employer is required by law to give you a lunch break
Although some states do require breaks, Georgia has no such law. Contrary to what many believe, there is also no federal law that compels employers to provide lunch breaks (or any breaks at all). Many companies in Georgia do allow workers to take lunch breaks, but doing so is solely at the discretion of the employer. If an employer permits short breaks (20 minutes or less), the employer is required to pay workers normally during these breaks. Employers are not required to pay for breaks of 30 minutes or longer.
Exception: employees who work through their breaks of 30 minutes or longer should be paid for the time and should also be paid overtime if they are exceeding 40 hours each week.
- Myth: Your employer can’t legally spy on your internet use while you’re on the job
Yes, they can. An “invasion of privacy” lawsuit will not get very far since it will be difficult for an employee to establish legitimate privacy interest in information stored on an employer-owned computer, including emails, instant messaging, and even texts on an employer-owned device.
Exception: there are certain areas of the workplace (like a bathroom or changing room) where employees have a reasonable expectation and where that privacy should not be invaded.
- Myth: Your boss’ bullying behavior constitutes an illegal “hostile workplace”
This is not usually the case. There’s no law that prohibits a boss or supervisor from being mean, rude, offensive, condescending, demeaning, or even vulgar.
Exception: Your boss cannot sexually harass you and cannot harass or bully you on the basis of any other protected characteristic (i.e., race, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, or pregnancy, for example).