Fight for your rights: As an employee or an employer, do you really know all your rights when it comes to the workplace? I sat down with an expert to discuss the long-standing rules and recent changes when it comes to employment law.

By Mark Fadden

Special to the Star-Telegram

In this job, I get the pleasure of speaking to many experts in their fields. When it comes to workplace law, it is such a complex subject that consulting an expert really pays off. That’s why for this week’s column, I turned to Natasha Bowman, JD, SPHR. She is a professor, attorney, and Founder and President of Performance ReNEW, a leadership development and talent management consultant firm. She is also the author of the best-selling book, “ YOU CAN’T DO THAT at WORK! 100 legal mistakes that managers make in the workplace.” Her expertise on workplace issues has been featured in prestigious media outlets such as Forbes, Business Insider, Fast Company, Inc., and the Tom Joyner Morning Show.

Mark Fadden (MF): “What are my legal rights as an employee, generally speaking?”

Natasha Bowman (NB): “As an employee, you generally have the right to a safe work environment that is free from unlawful harassment and discrimination. You have the right to be paid a fair wage for your work and take job protected leave when circumstances dictate it. You have a right to join others and speak freely about your terms and conditions of employment and form and join a union that can do so on your behalf.”

MF: “What are the boundaries of employee privacy?”

NB: “Generally speaking, employees can expect little to no privacy when they are at the workplace or using their employer’s equipment and devices. Although privacy typically is expected during non-work hours and off company premises, there are certain situations when employers are allowed to breach their employees privacy. One example would be if an employee were to post on social media comments or language that would be deemed to be unlawful harassment towards another employee. In this case, an employer may investigate the employee’s conduct outside of the workplace.

“Additionally, some employers include in their employee handbook that an employee’s conduct in and outside of the workplace must reflect the “values” of the organization. An employee was recently lawfully fired from her job when her employer came across photos from her pregnancy shoot where she was posing topless with her husband. The point here is that employees should not expect much privacy when they make their personal business available to the public. Your employers are watching.”

MF: “Many of us that work in offices don’t think about worker safety. Do you have any comments on that topic? What should the general office worker be concerned with when it comes to safety?

NB: “Employers have a general duty to keep their employees safe from known hazards, but most don’t work in environments where those hazards are obvious. Most employee injuries come from not having work spaces that are ergonomically friendly. Employees should contact their employer if their work spaces are causing a level of pain to their hands, back or neck, but should also be proactive in making sure that their work spaces are ergonomically friendly.”

MF: “Texas is an “employment-at-will” state. What exactly does that mean? And how can that affect one’s rights at work?”

NB: “The employment-at-will doctrine states that an employer or an employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. What this means is that an employee can walk into his organization and say “I quit” and suffer no legal consequences. The same is true for an employer. An employer can terminate your employment for no reason whatsoever with no legal consequences at all. There are some exceptions to the employment at will doctrine to include that an employer cannot terminate the employment relationship for discriminatory reasons or if there is an explicit contract in place.”

MF: “What are your thoughts on harassment and discrimination laws in today’s workplace? If an employee is concerned that they are being harassed or discriminated against at work, what should they do? How might their course of action differ if it’s harassment/discrimination from a colleague versus a supervisor/management?”

NB: “Although there have been laws in place that prohibit harassment and discrimination in the workplace for some time, the number of claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that is responsible for enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, continues to rise every year. Unlawful harassment is prohibited in the workplace whether it comes from managers, coworkers, customers, or vendors. If an employee believes that they have been discriminated against, they should report the conduct to their human resources department immediately. If an employee believes that their concerns went unheard or don’t agree with the outcome, then they should file a complaint their state agency that regulates labor and employment laws or the EEOC. There are strict timelines for filing such complaints that vary from state to state. All complaints filed with the EEOC should be filed within 180 of the time the alleged discrimination and/or harassment occurred.

MF: “Your book, You Can’t Do That at Work, refers to 100 legal mistakes that managers make in the workplace. Can you provide a few examples of the most egregious mistakes and what both the manager can do to avoid making them and the employee can do if the manager makes the mistake against them.

NB: “Absolutely! The following are my top three mistakes that managers make in the workplace:

1. Keeping around an “Equal Opportunity Jerk”, which is someone who supervises others and bullies them. Their conduct is considered lawful as they are bullying or harassing you due to your protected class, but rather treats everyone the same. Although their conduct may seem lawful, as workplace bullying is lawful conduct at work, it can still lead to legal liability such as a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

2. Believing that an employee must be bed-ridden when they are on Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. Some managers become upset when they see their employees posting beach photos on social media when they are on FMLA leave. However, a person can recover from a serious medical condition wherever they please in some cases. So, if an employee had foot surgery, they can recover or heal their foot on the beach.

3. Disciplining or terminating employees who complain about their work conditions on social media. When one or more employees complain about their terms and conditions of employment, they are engaging in protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. It is unlawful for an employer to have policies that prohibit employees from speaking badly about them.

If an employee believes that their rights at work have been violated, then they should first try to resolve their issues with their employer. If they are unable to come to a satisfactory resolution with their employer then they should contact the appropriate regulatory agency.”