21 things your boss can't legally do to employees
Do you think that what your boss does or demands of you is questionable or downright illegal?
Do you often find yourself working unreasonable overtime hours?
Do you ever deal with inappropriate requests or comments by your boss?
Is your privacy being invaded?
Are you being discriminated against?
Well, you know what they say, there's what is right, there's what is wrong, and then there is the law.
In this article, we will take a closer look at examples of what bosses are not allowed to do by law, and what you can do as an employee to counteract such illegal wrongdoings.
Table of Contents
What are bosses not allowed to do
Naturally, discrimination and harassment are close to mind when it comes to bosses breaking legal boundaries with employees.
But here we will examine closely the exact labor laws and legislations that protect the rights of workers so you will be equipped with the proper legal knowledge to protect yourself and others against bosses who act illegally.
1. Discriminate on the basis of protected characteristics
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, bosses cannot treat employees differently based on their race, skin color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), or national origin.
This includes hiring, firing, promotions, or other terms and conditions of employment.
In other words, if your boss is doing something against employees because they are a racist, sexist, xenophobic tyrant, then they are definitely doing something that is illegal.
2. Retaliate for exercising legal rights
Retaliation by employers is prohibited under various laws, such as Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
This means that employers cannot retaliate against employees for asserting their rights, such as filing a discrimination complaint or participating in an investigation or lawsuit.
3. Refuse to provide reasonable accommodation for a disability or religious beliefs
Under the ADA and Title VII, employers must provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities or for sincerely held religious beliefs, unless doing so would cause undue hardship to the business.
4. Harass or allow harassment
Harassment on the basis of protected characteristics (as explained in the first example) is a form of discrimination.
In other words, employers must take steps to prevent and correct unlawful harassment. So if your boss is acting like a bully, or allowing another person to behave as such, then the law is being broken.
For example, if your boss is yelling at you in a way that is hateful, then this is harassment.
5. Violate wage and work-hour laws
Under the FLSA, employers must pay at least the federal minimum wage and pay overtime for hours worked over 40 in a workweek, unless the employee is exempt.
They must also follow state and local wage and hour laws, which may provide greater protections.
This means that if your boss is asking you to stay overtime, they must pay you for the extra hours that you are working.
6. Deny family and medical leave when eligible
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.
Simply put, employers cannot deny FMLA rights to eligible employees.
7. Invade privacy
Employers generally cannot invade an employee's privacy, such as by wiretapping, hacking into a private email, or conducting overly intrusive searches.
For example, if your boss wants to take a look at your phone, they absolutely do not have the right to do so. This goes for taking a look in your purse or backpack.
8. Violate whistleblower protections
Generally, there are various laws that protect employees who report illegal activities, unsafe conditions, or other issues.
Therefore, employers cannot fire, demote, harass, or otherwise retaliate against whistleblowers.
For example, if your boss gets drunk at work and compromises the safety of employees and you call them out, then you should be protected.
9. Deny use of sick leave for self or family illness
Certain jurisdictions in the USA require employers to provide paid sick leave.
If you are eligible to use paid sick leave, then your employer does not have the right to deny it to you. In these cases, it is best to refer to your work agreement.
Also, they are not allowed to contact your doctor about any health-related information unless given your explicit permission.
10. Force employees to take a lie detector test
The Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) prohibits most private employers from using lie detector tests, either for pre-employment screening or during the course of employment, with certain exceptions.
While this may sound a bit futuristic, only some government agencies are allowed to put their employees through a lie detector test.
11. Unlawful deduction from wages
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits employers from making certain deductions from wages, such as for uniforms, damages, or mistakes, that would reduce an employee's effective wage rate below the minimum wage.
12. Deny jury duty leave
Under federal law, employers are prohibited from firing, intimidating, or coercing employees because they take time off to serve on a jury.
Please keep in mind that jury duty could be a lengthy and complicated process. Some trials could last from 2 weeks up to a month, depending on the complexity of the case.
13. Deny military leave
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) prohibits employers from denying any benefit of employment on the basis of an individual's membership, application for membership, performance of service, application for service, or obligation for service in the uniformed services.
It also protects the reemployment rights of veterans.
In other words, your boss can't tell you that you don't have the right to defend your country.
14. Discriminate based on genetic information
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or applicants based on their genetic information.
For example, if somehow your racist boss sees your 23andMe results and finds out that you are 5% Asian, then they can't fire you because of this.
15. Prevent employees from discussing pay
Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employees have the right to engage in "concerted activities", which includes the right to discuss their wages and working conditions with each other.
In other words, if you feel like you are being underpaid, it is perfectly fine to ask your employees how much they are making.
16. Deny pregnancy or parental leave
Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers are required to provide leave to pregnant women and new parents in certain situations, and they are prohibited from discriminating against employees due to pregnancy or parental status.
Children are the future of this country. Taking care of them is a priority. But it is an absolute no-brainer that a pregnant woman should be excused from work, especially if she is about to give birth.
17. Treat full-time and part-time employees differently without justification
While part-time employees are not protected as a class, treating full-time and part-time employees differently in terms of wage rates, benefits, and other terms of employment can lead to claims of discrimination.
This applies especially if it disproportionately affects employees based on protected characteristics, such as race or sex.
18. Force employees to work off the clock
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employees must be paid for all hours worked, including certain time spent preparing for work (donning and doffing) and certain rest breaks.
In other words, employers cannot require employees to work off the clock.
Of course, some jobs and businesses may require an employee to stay after work hours and help. If that is the case, you are free to agree to stay and help, given that you will be compensated for your hours.
19. Misclassify employees as independent contractors
Misclassification can allow employers to avoid paying minimum wage, overtime, taxes, and benefits.
However, the FLSA, IRS regulations, and other laws have criteria for determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor.
20. Disallow protected concerted activity
Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employees have the right to act together to improve their pay and working conditions or fix job-related problems, even if they are not in a union.
This is considered a "protected concerted" activity and employers cannot interfere with this right.
However, keep in mind that laws can vary by state and can change, and different industries may have additional regulations.
21. Misuse an employee's social security number
Employers in the United States are prohibited from misusing an employee's Social Security number (SSN).
This includes sharing it without permission (unless required by law, such as for tax purposes), using it for identity theft, or refusing to hire someone who does not provide an SSN due to a reasonable belief that they might become a victim of identity theft.
These actions could violate various federal and state laws, including privacy laws and the Social Security Act.
What to do if your employer is doing something illegal
If you suspect that your employer is engaging in illegal activity, it's essential to take the right steps to protect yourself and your fellow employees.
This process can be intimidating but it's important to ensure that your rights, and the rights of your coworkers, are not being violated.
Here's a step-by-step guide on how to address and report unlawful conduct by your boss in the workplace.
1. Identify the illegal activity of your boss and document it
Naturally, the first step is to understand whether your employer's actions are indeed illegal.
For this purpose, you need to familiarize yourself with federal, state, and local employment laws to determine if your boss is indeed in violation.
As I already explained above, examples of unlawful conduct could include discrimination, wage theft, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions, or retaliation for exercising your rights.
Once you've identified the illegal activity, begin documenting it in detail.
This can include noting dates, times, locations, and individuals involved, and saving relevant emails, text messages, or other evidence.
Also, make sure to keep these documents in a secure location, preferably off-site or in a secure digital location.
2. Discuss the matter internally with your employer and HR
Depending on the hierarchy of your company, the next thing that you need to do is to consider bringing the issue to the attention of your employer or your Human Resources (HR) department.
In case your company has such, follow any internal procedures for reporting wrongdoing.
This may involve filing a formal complaint, and it's essential to follow your company's procedures to the letter in order to not meet any obstructions along the way.
Also, you should retain a copy of your complaint and any response received.
Remember that voicing your concerns internally first can be crucial, especially in situations where the employer may not be aware of the illegal actions of a supervisor or a manager.
However, if the issue involves the HR department, if your workplace lacks an HR department, or if you fear retaliation, you may need to seek advice outside your workplace.
3. Consult with an employment lawyer
If the illegal activity persists or if you're unsure about the process, then it would be best to consult with an employment lawyer.
An attorney can provide advice tailored to your specific situation and guide you through the complexities of employment law.
They can also help you understand your rights and the potential risks and benefits of different courses of action, such as filing a lawsuit.
4. Make a formal complaint to the local authorities
If internal reporting doesn't resolve the issue, or if it's not appropriate due to the nature of the illegal activity, the next step is to report the violation to the relevant external authority.
This could be a federal or state agency, such as:
- the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for discrimination issues
- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for safety violations
- the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the Department of Labor for wage and hour violations.
And here's another piece of advice: when filing a complaint with an external authority, be as detailed as possible and include any supporting evidence you have collected. Also, keep a record of your report and any correspondence or decisions from the agency.
5. Consider whistleblower protections
If you're reporting illegal activities that affect not only employees but also the public or the government (like fraud or public safety violations), then whistleblower protections may come into play.
As I explained above, laws like the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act protect employees who report certain types of illegal activity from retaliation.
If this applies to your situation, you can consult with an attorney who specializes in whistleblower law.
6. Be prepared for a possible retaliation
Unfortunately, despite legal protections, some employers may attempt to retaliate against employees who report illegal activity.
Simply put, your boss may seek revenge for the fact that you crossed them.
Remember that retaliation can take many forms, including firing, demotion, harassment, or other negative changes to your employment.
If you experience retaliation, you can document it and report it to your attorney and the appropriate authority immediately.
7. Take care of yourself
Dealing with an employer who is engaging in illegal activity can be stressful and emotionally taxing.
Prioritize your mental and physical well-being throughout the process.
You may find it helpful to seek support from trusted friends, family, or professional counselors.
It's also important to keep your work performance as high as possible despite the situation.
Your actions and behavior may come under scrutiny, so you'll want to continue to act professionally and perform your duties to the best of your ability.
8. Explore other employment options
In some cases, it might be in your best interest to start looking for another job. Continuing to work in a toxic environment can take a toll on your mental health and job satisfaction.
If you decide to leave your toxic workplace, be prepared to explain your reasons for the job change in future job interviews in a professional manner.
Also, you might want to consult with your attorney before signing any severance or other agreements that may limit your rights.
9. Pursue a legal claim if necessary
If your employer's illegal conduct has resulted in tangible harm to you (such as lost wages or emotional distress), and it has not been resolved through other means, you might consider filing a lawsuit.
Your attorney can guide you through this process and help you weigh the potential costs and benefits.
Be mindful that there are often strict deadlines (called statutes of limitations) for filing employment lawsuits, so it's important to seek legal advice as soon as possible if you think you might need to sue.
My experience with a boss who was doing something illegal
As you may know, if you follow my articles closely, I have been working for the same international tech company as a project manager for over a decade now.
One of the harsh realities of working for a big company is that inevitably you will have to deal with toxic people.
A few years ago, we had a new department manager appointed. (The previous one had left due to crippling occupational burnout.)
After a few days of working closely with our new department manager through her orientation period, it became clear to me and my colleagues that she was a competent and experienced professional.
However, her true nature would eventually emerge as we were working toward our quarterly targets.
At times she would demand impossible deadlines so many of my coworkers had to work extra hours in order to reach them.
By the end of the quarter, the entire department was overworked and stressed. We were barely able to achieve our quarterly targets.
It was obvious our department was understaffed. So I decided to have a face-to-face conversation with our new department manager.
I told her that what we went through the past quarter wasn't optimal and that she should consider hiring more staff.
It was obvious to me that she was not happy with the feedback I had given her.
She told me that I should keep my options to myself because I wasn't the boss. She was. This was her department and she would run it according to her judgment.
As we entered the next quarter it became clear that history would repeat itself. Our new targets were set and once again we would have to struggle with tight deadlines and overtime work to meet them.
So me and my coworkers decided that enough was enough. We told our boss that we would not tolerate this anymore.
She said that we were all "spoiled millennials" who didn't know what hard work was. She said that we were "entitled brats" and specifically told me that if I ever raised the issue again she would fire me.
Naturally, her threats and downright illegal demands of overtime work for me and my coworkers didn't sit right with me.
I filed a formal complaint to our HR office which I backed up with supporting evidence and statements of other coworkers who had agreed to push back.
As soon as our complaint came to the attention of the HR staff, they took immediate measures. Our boss was called in for questioning and subsequently fired.
As it turned out, another coworker had independently filed a complaint recently, accusing our boss of racial discrimination.
And this is how we managed to survive (and get rid of) one of the most toxic bosses we've ever had.
Frequently asked questions
What should I do if my boss is discriminating against me?
If you believe that your boss is discriminating against you, then you should document the instances of discrimination and report them to your HR department by following company protocol. If the issue persists or your employer does not address the problem, you may need to contact an employment lawyer or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
What counts as harassment in the workplace?
Workplace harassment includes any unwelcome verbal or physical behavior based on race, sex, religion, disability, or any other protected class. It can range from offensive jokes and slurs to physical threats or assault. If the behavior creates a hostile or offensive work environment, or if enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, it may be considered harassment.
How should I report a violation of my rights at work?
First, you need to document the violation thoroughly. Then you need to report it to your immediate supervisor or your HR department following your company's guidelines. If your employer does not address the issue or if you face retaliation, you may need to file a complaint with an appropriate external agency like the EEOC or the Department of Labor.
Can I be fired for reporting a violation of my rights?
It is illegal for employers to retaliate against you for asserting your rights, including reporting a violation of your rights at work. Retaliation could include termination, but also other negative employment actions like demotion or harassment. If you experience retaliation, report it immediately.
Do I need a lawyer if my rights are violated at work?
While it's not always necessary, hiring a lawyer can be beneficial if your rights are violated at work. A lawyer can help you understand your rights, guide you through the process, and advocate for you, especially if you need to escalate your complaint to an external agency or court.