Wednesday, October 28, 2009

2 Big Myths About Work You Need to Ditch

When I was writing my last book, one of the things I focused on was that the world of work was different than the world outside of work. OK, this isn't exactly an outstanding revelation to many of you, but to lots of people, it is.

When people are at work, they think it's sort of an extended living room. They believe that they can say and do anything they want, because, by golly, this is America. Home of free speech, independent living and 450 cable channels.

But the truth is, when you go to work you sign an employment contract, and that gives the employer the right to expect certain things from you. If you don't follow the rules, it can mean you are disciplined, fired or perhaps even criminally prosecuted.

I recently interviewed an employment law expert, who pointed out there are a lot of myths that employees believe, including the one that they can say what they want at work. But even more interesting are the things that can get you into trouble, even when you're trying to be a team player and help out an employer. Here's the story I did for my Gannett column:

You may believe that all those extra hours you’re putting in on the job without being paid will help you stay in the boss’s good graces, but you may not realize that you’re breaking the law – and you could be fired for it.

Shanti Atkins, a lawyer and president and CEO of San Francisco-based ELT Inc., which specializes in ethics and workplace compliance training, says that showing you’re dedicated by “volunteering” your time is a mistake.

“A lot of people are worried about their jobs, and they want to contribute in this recession by working off the clock. But 90 percent of people – and their managers – don’t realize they’re not complying with federal wage and hour laws and it’s a huge – huge – area of risk for companies,” Atkins says.

Atkins says class action lawsuits related to wage and hour claims outnumber all other class action lawsuits combined. The average federal settlement for these wage and lawsuits? About $23.5 million. State settlements are a little more at $24.4 million, she says.

“These are ‘bet the company’ lawsuits,” she says. “They’re very cut and dried. Did you pay someone overtime for the extra work they did or not? Records show very clearly what happened.”

Atkins says employees should refuse any “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” requests from managers that they work extra time without pay, “and the manager should be reported for asking them to do it,” because under the law, an employee can be disciplined or fired for not reporting it, Atkins says.

Atkins says this is just one example of employees being unfamiliar with their rights and responsibilities in the workplace. Others include:

• Speaking your mind. While freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment, what you say around the workplace water cooler can cost you your job. For example, if you “create a management problem” by making statements that could be considered harassing or discriminatory, you may be setting the groundwork for a pink slip.

“A real lightening rod in this area is when sexual orientation intersects with religion, such as someone saying at work that it’s a sin to have a gay lifestyle,” Atkins says. “Or, they try and pray for another employee to convince them of the error of their ways. Or, they refuse to go to sexual harassment training because they disagree with what’s said about sexual orientation.”

While employees may balk at a “Big Brother” atmosphere that monitors what they say on the job, Atkins says bosses are obligated under federal law to make sure they provide a “safe environment” for workers free of harassment or discrimination. That includes, she says, anything introduced into the work environment with personal handheld devices such as smart phones, which can show videos or photos.

“Just because it’s your iPhone doesn’t mean it’s OK to show a racist video in the break room,” she says.

• Social networking. More employees and managers “friend” one another these days on Facebook or “follow” one another on Twitter. The problem is that “this exposes managers to information they might not normally have,” Atkins says.

“Employers aren’t supposed to know about an employee’s sex, religion or politics, but the employee forgets about the boss now having access to the information (through social networking),” Atkins says.

For example, a boss may be considering termination of an employee for performance reasons. But because of Twitter or Facebook, right before that termination the boss finds out that the employee has health problems or reveals his or her sexual orientation. That’s when social networking can become a real problem for companies and may result in a lawsuit, Atkins says.

“Discrimination cases are based on what managers knew,” Atkins says. “Social networking reveals an awful lot.”

Atkins says even LinkedIn, which is considered the “professional” online networking site, could get managers in trouble because of the feature that allows you to “recommend” someone.

“Ninety-nine percent of companies have a policy that says you can’t give a letter of recommendation for an employee because it’s a liability and a risk if the employee doesn’t work out for the other employer,” Atkins says. “But if you recommend someone on LinkedIn, you’ve just published one.”



David Benjamin said...

Great article with a wealth of helpful information.Both the overtime issue and LinkedIn recommendations are a tricky one.

Although I'm not in the corporate workplace anymore, it was common for many companies to have 'volunteered overtime' and employees felt helpless to say anything for risk of losing their job.

Trying to get recommendations, professional reference checks have become more difficult and as stated in your post, people need to know their companies policy before engaging online for all to see.

Anita said...

I agree these are all tricky situations and ones that many employees haven't considered. I suggest everyone get their employee handbook out, and read carefully the company policy. If they don't understand it, they should seek help from human resources.

Karen said...

I think so many people today confuse work, professional life with PERSONAL.

That is a bad idea all around. The important thing to always remember is that work is work is work- it is business, be professional and polished. Now that doesn't mean you cannot be yourself, but don't be yourself like you are Friday night at the clubs!

And networking and social chit chat is always great- just keep it to a min and don't become the office gossip queen!

Just some friendly advice from The Resume Chick. Google Me!

Anita said...

Thanks, Karen. Too many people ignore these rules -- or forget about them after they get to work -- and it can really impact a career. And, let's face it, no one can afford to jeopardize a current position with this rotten job market.

Unknown said...

My guess is that the overtime law does not apply to exempt employees. I have done a good amount of research, and have not found anything that would help me reduce my hours, as my current boss mandates overtime and HR doesn't dispute it since I am considered an exempt employee.