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How to Protect Yourself at Work


In the working world, things can get complicated. Luckily, there are plenty of laws in place to protect you from mistreatment in the workplace. Do people always follow those laws? Nope. Which is why it’s really important to know what your rights are in the workplace. That way, you can spot if something wrong is happening and can take steps to correct it. Let’s look at how to protect yourself at work, so you can focus on being great at your job. 

Step 1. Understand the main employment laws

While we can’t go over every employment law in the book, we can cover the big ones that are most likely to affect you on a day-to-day basis. 

We also want to note here that if something is happening in your workplace that really doesn’t feel fair or appropriate, you should do some digging into any related federal and state employment laws to better understand your rights. 

The Fair Labor Standards Act sets the federal minimum wage and how overtime pay works. Overtime pay legally must be one-and-one-half-times your regular rate of pay. This act also regulates child labor (yes, that includes summer jobs in high school). While there is a national minimum wage, some states have higher minimum wages. In those states, state law trumps federal law. 

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) is in charge of overseeing employers’ pension plans and the required fiduciary, disclosure, and reporting requirements that come along with them. In other words, if you have a pension, ERISA makes sure that it’s being managed properly. Not all private employers are under ERISA’s jurisdiction, but generally they set the standards for retirement plans.  

The Family Medical and Family Leave Act requires employers who have more than 50 employees to give their workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave, when they give birth to or adopt a child. This act also applies if you need to take time off work if you have a serious illness or need to take care of a spouse, parent, or child who is seriously ill. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) sets health and safety conditions in private-sector industries. This is done to make sure that work environments don’t pose any serious hazards to the employees.

There are also employment laws surrounding:

  • Wages and compensation (including vacation time)
  • Hiring and firing employees
  • Discrimination protections
  • Harassment
  • Background checks

If you want to learn more about labor laws, we love how thorough this resource from the U.S. Department of Labor is!

Step 2. Know what HR is all about

HR stands for “human resources” and the HR department — which is often a department of just one person at smaller companies — can take on a lot of roles. They may hire and train employees, help solve employee conflicts, make sure the company is following employment laws, and administer employee benefits. In an ideal world, if you have a problem that is too sensitive to take to your manager, you should be able to go to HR. However, HR departments are notorious for looking out for the company more than employees. Even so, working with your HR department closely when you have a problem is important. They have to keep careful records of any complaints you make and can help you solve problems relating to harassment, discrimination, or any type of inappropriate behavior. 

Step 3. Quit your job the right way

Even though they shouldn’t, emotions can run high on both sides of the table once you’ve put your notice in at work. Sometimes this can lead to a less than comfortable transition. Here’s a few things you need to know about quitting the right way, to make the process go as smoothly as possible.

You must resign in writing. While you will want to tell your boss face to face (or Zoom to Zoom) that you’re quitting, you’ll need to provide them with written confirmation afterwards in the form of a resignation letter. This doesn’t need to be fancy. Simply type up a brief note that thanks the employer for the time you had with them and clearly mark what your last day working with the company will be. Then you sign it and give it to your boss.

You don’t necessarily have to give two weeks notice. Contrary to popular belief, you might not have to give an employer two weeks notice before heading out for good. If you’re employed in an “at-will” state like California, two weeks notice generally isn’t a requirement. Double check your state laws (and your contract) to make sure you’re good to go before pulling a disappearing act. 

However, if you want to stay on reasonably good terms with your employer and colleagues, it’s the right thing to do. The exception being, if you feel unsafe at your workplace in any way, you can leave as soon as you need to. The same thing goes if you’re quitting to handle a personal or family crisis of any sort. At the end of the day, you need to look out for yourself. And it’s worth noting that if a new employer pressures you to start sooner than two weeks after they make you an offer, that’s a big red flag that they don’t hold professional values or respect boundaries. 

Be positive. If you’re leaving a job, you may be doing so because you were unhappy with your current workplace. Even if you are elated at the thought of moving on and never looking back, try to keep things positive. Speaking poorly of the company, your manager, or your coworkers to anyone at the office can leave a poor taste in their mouths and cause resentment. While you may be thrilled about your new opportunity, you don’t want anyone to feel bad about where they currently are. You never know which coworkers you’ll encounter again in the future and you don’t want to damage your professional reputation.

Are you worried about bad behavior in your office? Enroll in Career 101: The Building Blocks and you’ll gain access to a workplace concerns log that will help you track and report bad workplace behavior.

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