17 things your boss can’t legally do

If you have the fortune of having a good boss, that man or woman who’s a natural-born leader and is great to be around, it can be hard to spot when they’re going astray. It can be even harder to say no when they ask you to do something that you’re not comfortable with.

But there are things your boss can’t legally do.

If your boss is one of the bad guys, things are even worse, since they usually resort to all kinds of threats to coax more work out of you. This is why knowing what your boss is or isn’t legally allowed to do, say and ask of you is such a big step forward in terms of securing a healthy working environment.

Many people are unfamiliar with labor laws that cover the workplace, and some employers take advantage of that to cut corners or get more out of their employees than they should. This is why, in this post, we show you 17 things you probably didn’t know your boss or future boss can’t legally do.

Treat you like an employee if you’re an independent contractor

This is especially relevant in today’s booming gig economy, where freelance work is filling an ever-larger portion of the demand in the job market. Companies hire independent contractors to keep labor costs down, since they don’t have to pay employee benefits and certain taxes. But if your boss is telling you when and how to do your work, they’re treating you as an employee, not as an independent contractor. 

Under labor law, your effective employment status is more important than what your contract says. So even if you were hired as a freelancer, if your boss is treating you as an employee, the law sees you as an employee as well, and you’re entitled to all the benefits that that implies.

Admittedly, the distinction between employee and contractor is not always clear. As a general rule, though, if you’re on the company payroll, you’re an employee, and if you run your own LLC (including one incorporated using a virtual business address), you’re a contractor.

Ask you to perform tasks that are not a part of your job description

Even though job descriptions are getting broader and the responsibilities that come with them are becoming less defined, you’re only obliged to stick to the specific tasks your boss hired you for. For example, your boss can’t make you clean up the workplace when your shift ends if that wasn’t discussed and agreed upon in your contract.

Ask prohibited questions on job applications

You should be aware that labor laws protect employees even before they land a job to protect them from discrimination or harassment if they’re hired. One of the ways this works is by prohibiting potential employers from asking certain family or health-related questions, as well as some personal questions during job applications or interviews. Some examples of this include, but are not limited to:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity
  • Preexisting health conditions
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Citizenship or country of origin
  • Race
  • Disabilities

Force you to sign a broad non-compete agreement

Non-compete agreements are contracts where employees agree not to join a direct competitor’s company after their employment contract terminates. In other words, it’s a way companies avoid giving the competition access to a workforce that has a lot of inside information about how they run their business.

Non-compete agreements aren’t illegal per se. For example, Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company, would probably want to make sure its current employees don’t end up working at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, after their employment time ends. However, some of these contracts can be so broad that they hinder an employee’s chances of working in their field, which is unacceptable. If you’re feeling uncomfortable with the terms and conditions of a non-compete agreement because it’s too broad, don’t sign it. Your boss can’t force you. Get legal counseling instead and negotiate a less limiting deal.

Forbid you from discussing working conditions and even salary with co-workers

Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), most employees in the private sector have the right to unionize or organize in the pursuit of common goals within the organization. This is one of the most fundamental labor rights, and it has some important implications. One implication is that it gives employees the right to discuss working conditions and salaries with their peers and co-workers. How else will employees be able to agree on workplace issues that need to be addressed as a group if they were forbidden to discuss them?

For obvious reasons, employers don’t like having their workers compare notes because it usually ends in conflict and with some employees demanding a pay raise or a bigger office. However, there’s nothing an employer can do about it since not allowing their workforce to discuss these topics, even publicly, goes against their right to unionize.

Neglect or refuse to pay you overtime

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines the maximum number of hours that make up a full-time workweek. Here in the US, it’s defined as 40 hours of work per week. That means that nonexempt workers who put in more than 40 hours in a single week are entitled to be paid overtime for those extra hours.

Furthermore, while the 40 hours-per-week limit exists at the federal level, some state laws have additional conditions of their own. For example, under California law, the legal workday is only 8 hours long, and employers are required to give their employees a full day off work every week. This means that, in California, employers can’t cram the 40 hours into three or four days without paying you overtime. They are obliged to pay you overtime for all the hours you work on the seventh day of the workweek if you already worked six days straight.

Pay you less than the minimum wage

The US and most other countries worldwide have complex labor laws that cover compensation and specify some form of a minimum wage. The federal government currently sets the lower bound at $7.25 per hour, which means that no employer in the United States can legally hire you offering less than that wage. Also, just like before, some state laws mandate own minimum wages that are higher than the federal limit. For example, under New York State law, companies must pay a minimum wage of $15/hour to all their employees.

Make you work off the clock

Some bosses try to beat the system and not pay you overtime by having you perform tasks outside office hours, particularly tasks that don’t seem to be productive for the company. That’s why laws are written to make sure that everything an employer may think of is already accounted for and that there are no grey areas that allow employers to take advantage of their workers. In this sense, you need to know which hours count and which don’t to be properly compensated.

Tasks your boss cannot legally ask you to do without paying you for them include:

  • Any sort of prep work, including paperwork, research, or even preparing dinner before a night shift
  • Skill training during non-work hours
  • Cleaning and organizing your workplace after your shift ends
  • Burning working hours while waiting for new tasks or assignments.

Offer to pay your overtime hours in cash

Now that you’re clear on what constitutes overtime, it’s time we talk about how your employer can pay for those hours. Overtime hours are subject to many employment benefits, and some employers will often try to avoid those responsibilities by paying you in cash and keeping those hours off the books. The same goes for any bonuses and commissions. However, this could bring your boss many problems since all of those payments must be registered by law in the company’s payroll records.

Make you participate in uncomfortable or humiliating “team building” exercises

Managers and HR specialists sometimes get pretty creative when trying strategies to increase their company’s productivity. Many strategies revolve around effective team building and motivational exercises, but some employers fail to think things through. This is what happened to Janet Orlando; a 52-year-old saleswoman hired to work at Alarm One, a company that had some questionable motivational practices that involved eating baby food, wearing diapers, and getting spanked with a company sign for different reasons during meetings.

While this may sound fun to younger employees, it was humiliating for Janet, and she filed and won a lawsuit for sexual harassment and sexual battery. This case highlights an important fact: bosses can get creative in terms of how they run their business, but whatever strategy they come up with, it’s never above their employees’ right to a harassment-free workplace, so they cannot legally force you to participate in those activities if they make you uncomfortable.

High-performing companies treat their employees well, and prudent investors have caught on. So not only is there an ethical reason for your boss to treat you with respect, but there’s a financial one, too.

Withhold or deduct your payment without your consent or as punishment

While there are some salary deductions required by law, such as those related to taxes, your boss has to discuss with you, and you must give your consent to any other non-required deductions from your paycheck to make them. This means that if you haven’t given any sort of consent, you can expect a full paycheck on time, every time.

This is true even if you violated company policy in any way, and even if you end up leaving the company on bad terms since the law expressly prohibits employers from using your paycheck as a form of punishment.

Discriminate against you

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its amendments specifically states that it’s illegal to “…discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex.” Nowadays, anti-discrimination laws have become broader and include protection from discrimination based on pregnancy, age, disabilities, and even health conditions. There are many implications to Title VII, and we already saw one of them at the beginning of this list.

Other specific or tangible acts of discrimination that are prohibited by law include refusing to hire or promote you and firing or demoting you based on the conditions mentioned above.

Retaliate against you for whistleblowing

It’s normal to feel hesitant and fearful that your boss will retaliate and fire you or turn your workplace into a toxic atmosphere if you take action and speak up about something that’s not right. However, federal and state laws protect employees against such retaliation, ensuring workers can do what’s right.

Ignore exemptions to vaccination mandates

The vaccination conversation largely transformed from a medical one into a political one. Regardless of where you stand, though, the fact is that many companies are still requiring their workers to get vaccinated to return to the office.

While bosses are legally allowed to mandate vaccinations based on the requirement that an individual should not pose a direct threat to the health and safety of co-workers, there are exemptions. The two most important ones are health and religion.

Suppose you are allergic to any of the vaccine’s components. In that case, you are automatically exempt from any vaccination mandate, and your boss cannot retaliate against you or not allow you to come to work. The same goes for cases when religious beliefs forbid you to get your shot.

“Papering” your file to justify firing you

The US is one of the few countries where employment is at will, meaning that an employer is free to fire you anytime for whatever reason or no reason at all, as long as it doesn’t constitute wrongful termination. However, firing you without cause requires your employer to pay you a compensatory award, so they’ll sometimes try to stuff your file with negative reports and send you unfair warnings to justify laying you off without paying that award.

This is called “papering” your file, and you should know that this is completely illegal. If you suspect that your boss is papering your file or that they did it to justify firing you, you should try to round up as much evidence of it as possible since you can use it to file a claim later on.

Give preferential treatment to younger employees

Because of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, employers are not allowed to give preferential treatment to younger workers to the detriment of older workers. This means that, if you’re 40 or older, your boss can’t offer more career opportunities, pay raises, or promotions to younger candidates who are equally skilled as you. This only applies to big companies that hire 20 or more employees and is meant to promote the employment of older workers based on their ability to do their work without considering age.

Retaliate against you for complaining about work on social media

This has to do with the NLRA and the freedom to unionize. As an employee, you have a good bit of leeway in terms of publicly discussing employment issues such as compensation or your work environment, and that includes social media. As long as you don’t threaten your boss, make maliciously false statements against them or engage in harassing behavior, your boss cannot legally discipline you.

The bottom line

Labor laws are made to protect the weakest part of the employment relationship, which always means the employee. They are specifically designed to make this relationship as fair as possible to both parties.

However, it’s very common to see employers use their position of power to take advantage of their employees in different ways. However, knowing what your boss can and cannot legally do and acting upon it is the first step to ensuring a healthy and fair working environment.