Navigating the various federal, state, and local laws and ordinances that control numerous aspects of the employer-employee relations can be intimidating and complex. For many employees, knowledge of employment laws may come from popular news sources, employee handbooks, and break-room posters that simply recite statutes. Here, we summarize the most common misconceived employment laws.
MYTH 1: “At-will” employees can be terminated for any reason
In most states, employment is presumed to be “at-will.” This means that in the absence of a common law, contract, or statutory right, an employer is free to terminate an employee “for any reason or no reason at all,” and employees are also free to resign employment with this same discretion.
There are, however, limitations to the at-will doctrine. Some of the most common exceptions include:
- Discrimination based on gender, race, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, etc.
- Retaliation for exercising a right or privilege, including taking medical leave, complaining about discrimination, and filing a worker’s compensation claim.
- Retaliation for whistleblowing.
MYTH 2: Employers cannot take any adverse action against an employee that has engaged in protected activity
Federal and state laws prohibit employers from retaliating against an employee for engaging in legally protected. Retaliation may take the form of a demotion, discipline, job or shift reassignment, increased scrutiny, and giving an employee a negative performance when it is not warranted by the employee’s job performance.
If an employer takes an adverse actions against an employee who engages in a protected activity, then the employee may have a claim for retaliation. However, an employer that can prove that it had a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for the adverse action, which the employee cannot establish is pretext, will not be found liable.
MYTH 3: Non-compete agreements are bulletproof
Non-compete agreements are disfavored in Minnesota as restraints on competition, and generally won’t be enforced by courts unless they are narrowly tailored to protect legitimate business interests. Minnesota courts closely scrutinize employee non-compete agreements before upholding them. An enforceable non-compete agreement must (1) be necessary to safeguard the employer’s legitimate business interests and (2) be reasonable as between the parties.
MYTH 4: Employers must provide employees with breaks
Federal law does not require lunch or coffee breaks. However, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as compensable work hours.
In Minnesota, employers must provide employees with restroom time and sufficient time to eat a meal. If the break is less than 20 minutes in duration, it must be counted as hours worked.
MYTH 5: Workplace harassment is illegal
Most non-sexual harassing behavior (i.e. bullying) that isn’t based on a protected status remains perfectly legal. For harassment to constitute employment discrimination it must be based on a protected characteristic. In addition, the conduct must either be severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive; or enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment
MYTH 6: Employees have an absolute right to view their personnel files
In many states, including Minnesota, employees have the right to view, or request a copy of, their personnel files. However, employers aren’t required to give employees unlimited access to their personnel files. In Minnesota, former employees have one opportunity to view their file during the first year after termination while current employees may review files once per 6-month period.
MYTH 7: Supervisors cannot be held individually liable
Generally, individual supervisors cannot be found liable under certain discrimination laws because the supervisor is not considered that “employer.” However, discrimination and harassment claims are often accompanied by personal tort actions against specific individuals which may give rise to individual liability.
MYTH 8: Employer’s must provide final wages immediately
Employers are not required by federal law to give former employees their final paycheck immediately. In Minnesota, however, a terminated employee’s paycheck must be paid within 24 hours of the employee’s demand for wages.
MYTH 9: Free speech protects employees at the workplace
Although private employees don’t have a constitutional right to free speech at work, employers are prohibited from taking adverse actions against an employee that discusses possible unlawful conduct in the workplace or engages in “concerted activity” under the NLRA.
MYTH 10: Employers have no right to read employee emails
Generally, company e-mail accounts are not considered private and employers have a legal right to read employee e-mails transmitted through company accounts. However, employers are prohibited from monitoring employee emails for illegal reasons, such as to discourage protected activity.