If you’ve paid any attention to advertising in the last 15 years, you’re probably familiar with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority slogan “What Happens Here, Stays Here.” Not only did the phrase drive millions of fun-seekers to Sin City, it also inspired a movie trilogy. Too bad it’s often wrong. Depending on federal and state laws, as well as your employer’s policies, your conduct while on vacation—or even just after hours—could have a direct effect on your job.
RewardExpert recently spoke with attorney Paula Brantner, senior advisor at Workplace Fairness, about the organization’s mission, common off-duty activities that may be prohibited by your employer, and what you should do if you think your rights have been violated.
Comprehensive, Unbiased Information on Workers’ Rights
Founded in 1994 as the National Employee Rights Institute, the non-profit’s name was formally changed to Workplace Fairness in 2001.
“The organization was started by some of the same people who ran an organization for lawyers called the National Employment Lawyers Association,” Brantner explained. “They informed and educated lawyers who were representing workers in employment cases and decided that there should be a group to represent the workers’ side of things as well.”
Though they began as an offline law journal and later built a simple web portal with links to employment-law related topics, they were inspired by websites like Web MD to begin developing original content that visitors could use to determine whether they needed to consult with a legal professional.
“At that point, we had only a handful of pages,” Brantner said. “Today, we have over 400 pages of information that we update and maintain on a continuous basis. We also make sure the website is up to date with new issues that are coming to the forefront of employment law. For example, we are now in the process of adding new pages both on undocumented workers and DACA.”
Common Off-Duty Issues in Today’s Workplaces
According to Brantner, many of the issues surrounding employee off-duty conduct are fairly new and due, in large part, to the technological advances society has made over the last couple of decades.
“People would come in, punch a time clock, work a set number of hours, punch out and then leave,” Brantner explained. “Now we have a lot of workers who are exempt from overtime laws and their employers can ask them to work an unlimited number of hours. And thanks to technology, these people can often do their jobs away from the workplace. They are checking their work email all day and night. They can work on projects remotely. We no longer have this strict separation between work time and off duty time that we traditionally had.”
As a result, some employers feel they should have more control over what their employees are doing when they aren’t physically at the workplace. And in many cases, the restrictive policies they elect to enforce are perfectly legal under state and federal laws.
One such policy is prohibiting dating amongst coworkers.
“There are federal laws pertaining to sexual harassment,” Brantner said. “Some of the relationship and dating policies employers put in place come from a desire to avoid sexual harassment claims, such as may happen if someone feels coerced to engage in a relationship with a superior, or in the aftermath of a break-up.”
Depending on the policies at your workplace, taking a romantic vacation with a coworker could cost you your job as a result. However, Brantner noted that she is seeing more companies loosen the reigns on employee dating somewhat. “More are asking their employees to just declare if they are dating,” she said. “If one is supervising the other, one may have to change departments.”
Another common policy is prohibiting moonlighting.
If you’ve signed a non-compete or other such agreement with your employer and decide to do a little freelancing on that trip to Miami, your actions could have specific legal implications because there aren’t any state or federal laws establishing your right to work multiple jobs. “It comes down to the company’s interests,” Brantner said.
Your online conduct can also land you in hot water.
According to Brantner, some online actions may be protected by the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law that makes it possible for workers to unionize.
“Even if you are not a member of a union, or your workplace is not unionized at all, you have the ability to engage in what is known as concerted activity,” she said. “That means communicating with your coworkers about working conditions and how to make them better and is something employers cannot ban.”
However, online activities such as ranting about your boss on Facebook, shaming clients or customers on Twitter, revealing proprietary information, or engaging in behaviors determined to be obscene, profane, or illegal, are not protected by the law—even if they happened in Vegas.
Think Your Rights Have Been Violated?
Whether you’ve been fired, reprimanded, or are just concerned about what you can and cannot do while off the clock without risking your job, Brantner encourages workers to review their employee handbooks and other documentation they’ve received from their employers carefully.
“At-will employment applies to most employees of private employers,” she said. “It means you can be fired for any reason or no reason as long as it’s not an illegal reason. Some of the illegal reasons are discrimination, harassment, whistleblowing, union organizing, and filing a worker’s comp claim. Otherwise, employers are given a lot of leeway.”
Next, she suggests consulting with your employer’s HR department.
“I always urge people to remember that HR works for the company,” she noted. “They are not necessarily your friend. But if you have questions about the company’s policies before you move forward with filing any type of formal complaint, HR may be a helpful source of clarification.”
Finally, she said employees should visit the Workplace Fairness website.
“Reading the information on our website can be helpful before you have a conversation with a lawyer,” she explained. “You can review the background information and find out why a lawyer may be able to help you or not.”