I spend a good part of my days explaining basic employment law to callers, and on occassion I get a caller who tells me I obviously don’t know what I am talking about, because what I am saying is contrary to one of their cherished myths about employment law.  The sad thing is, I usually get that type of call when the employee has relied on a given myth and been fired as a result.

One example of this is the myth that you should refuse to sign a performance review or disciplinary write-up if you don’t agree with what it contains.  Wrong.  The employer can then fire you for insubordination for refusing to sign.  Another popular one is that under the First Amendment, an employer can’t fire you for something you say, and certainly can’t do so for something you said on your own time.  Wrong.  The First Amendment provides only that the government can’t abridge your free speech; that restriction does not apply to an employer.  Then, of course, there is the grandaddy of them all, that an employer needs a reason to fire you.  Wrong.  If you are an at-will employee, your employer does not need a reason to fire you.

Now, nothing is black and white under the law.  Having just debunked the above three myths, I’ll show you exceptions.

Refusing to sign a false disciplinary memorandum:  You can’t refuse to sign the memo acknolwedging that you received it, but if it is worded in such a way that it is requiring you to admit to something you did not do, there’s nothing to keep you from adding a note beneath your signature stating the you do not admit to any wrongdoing, and you can send a memo to your own personnel file explaining your side.

The First Amendment protects your speech:  The First Amendment has nothing to do with it, but there are many circumstance where the employer can’t fire you for something you said if that speech itself is protected.  In other words, if the speech in question was you complaining about the company failing to pay the required overtime, or a complaint about safety, that would be protected.

At-will employment:  Your employer does not need a reason to fire you if you are an at-will employee, but you can’t be fired for a reason that violates public policy.  So if the boss fires you because you collect salt and pepper shakers in your cubicle, that’s fine.  There is no public policy that protects the collecting of salt and pepper shakers.  But if your boss fires you for wearing a yamaka, that’s probably religious discrimination and that is a violation of public policy.

Bottom line:  A little knowledge is just enough to get you in trouble.  I get calls every week from employees who have left work because the boss was shouting at them, and when they return they are fired.  They call, confident that they have a basis to sue because, after all, that was a “hostile work environment.”  That is not what is meant by a hostile work environment (although it could be).

Don’t believe me?  Check out that and other workplace myths in this article by U.S. World and News Report.