Everyone makes a mistake or two on the job. But, depending on the type of mistake or its severity, you may lose your job. Employment attorney Donna Ballman, author of Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired, writes about common mistakes that often result in termination.
By Attorney Donna Ballman
Special to THELAW.TV
Here are some things you shouldn’t do on the job — if you want to keep your job:
1. Complaining about your boss: If you complain about bullying, unprofessional behavior, or general harassment, you aren’t protected against retaliation. However, bullies tend to pick on people who may fit within protected categories. If you complain, you’ll want to complain in a way that is legally protected against retaliation. Complain about how the boss is singling you out due to race, age, sex, religion, national origin, disability or pregnancy and you are protected. Other protected categories include taking Family and Medical Leave, making a worker’s comp claim or blowing the whistle on illegal activities. If you’re being singled out due to a protected activity, report that, not general harassment or bullying.
2. Demanding breaks: No federal law and most state laws require any breaks for employees. That includes coffee breaks, lunch breaks and even bathroom breaks. If your boss tells you to get back to work and you say you’re going to finish your break instead, you can be fired for that. If you demand a work break that the law (or a contract, such as a union contract) doesn’t require, you can be fired for refusing to come back to work or leaving to take the break.
3. Complaining about working conditions: If you complain about your own working conditions, or if you’re a supervisor, you aren’t usually legally protected against retaliation. A big exception would be complaining to OSHA about safety issues, or complaining to DOL about unpaid wages. If you’re going to complain about working conditions (and you aren’t a supervisor), complain on behalf of others as well as yourself. Then you’re likely protected by the National Labor Relations Act and can’t be fired for this protected activity.
4. Free speech: If you mouth off to your supervisor, spout your views on politics, or voice opinions, please remember that the First Amendment only protects you from government action. There’s no free speech in corporate America. You can be fired for exercising your free speech at work.
5. Personal emails: Many employers monitor your personal emails if you access them on your work computer or a company device such as a company-issued cell phone. If you open or forward inappropriate emails, you can be fired. If you complain about the boss to a friend or spouse, you can be fired. Open your personal emails at home or on your personal cell phone.
6. Arguments with coworkers: You know how it’s annoying when your kids fight? Imagine how your supervisor feels when you complain about your annoying coworker every day. If your coworker is creating a hostile environment, you probably aren’t protected if you complain about it. If the environment is hostile due to your race, age, sex, religion, etc., then say those words. You’re protected against retaliation if you report sexual harassment, religious harassment, racial harassment, but not if you report general harassment.
7. It’s not in my job description: Your boss can order you to do things outside your job description (unless you have a contract saying otherwise). If they tell you to empty the trash, do it. If you’re the only one at your level being given menial tasks, then look around at your coworkers. If you’re being singled out due to illegal discrimination, because you blew the whistle, or because you made a worker’s comp claim, then what they’re demanding may be illegal. Still, don’t refuse to do it. You can be charged with insubordination for refusing to follow a direct order. Do it (unless it’s a safety issue) and then report the illegal discrimination or retaliation to HR.
8. Social media: If you complain about your boss or diss the company on social media, you can probably be fired. While you can discuss and complain about working conditions with coworkers (if you aren’t a supervisor), be careful about your social media activities. The National Labor Relations Board may protect you if your social media complaints involve working conditions, and if you are discussing with or venting to coworkers. Otherwise, remember what I said about free speech? You can be fired for voicing your opinions, even on your own time.
9. Off-Duty Activities: While some states have laws protecting you against being fired for legal off-duty activities, most don’t. That means your employer can fire you because you post inappropriate pictures on Facebook, because you moonlight as a stripper, or even because you’re a smoker in most states. Some states protect smoking, but not other off-duty activities. You can also be fired for your DUI arrest, so be careful out there.
10. At-will: In every state but Montana, you can be fired at-will. That means you can be fired because your boss is in a bad mood, because they didn’t like your shirt that day, or because they want to hire their sister. Wrongful termination simply doesn’t exist under most circumstances. Think you’re entitled to be fired for only just cause? You’re wrong, unless you have a union or other contract saying so.