9 Things Every Teen Should Know About Workplace Rights

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If you're in high school or college, odds are you're looking for a summer job or internship. Maybe you're even working during the school year. Of course, your school gave you detailed preparation on what your legal rights are when you work. Right? Ha. Not a chance. Schools do roughly zip to prepare teens for the real world workplace. You have to figure this stuff out on your own.

Well, I'm here to help. I wrote last week about sexual harassment, but there's more you need to know. If you're new to the workplace or getting ready to apply for an internship, this is the article for you.
If you are the parent, relative, guardian or friend of a teen who is about to enter the workforce, do them a favor and print, tweet, email (do teens email?), text, Instagram or Pinterest this to them. (You can probably forget about Facebooking it to them since they all fled when their parents got on Facebook.)

Here's what your high school or college probably didn't teach you about workplace rights:

  1. At-will: If you live anywhere but Montana, your employment is probably at-will, meaning your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all (with some exceptions). They can fire you because they're in a bad mood, because they didn't like your shirt, or because you lipped off to them like you lip off to your parents. Exceptions that would make a firing illegal include firing due to discrimination, making a worker's comp claim, and blowing the whistle on illegal activity of the company. If your boss tells you to do something that isn't illegal (or sexual harassment), then do it. No eye-rolling, back-talk or attitude.
  2. Bullying: Does your school have zero tolerance for bullying? Boy, are you in for a shock. No federal or state law exists that prohibits workplace bullying. However, workplace bullies are very much like school bullies: they focus on the weak and the different. If you need to complain about a bully, make sure you do it in a way that's protected. If the bully is picking on the weak, are they weak because of a disability, pregnancy, or age? If they're picking on the different, is the difference based on race, national origin, age, or religion? If you report illegal discrimination, the law protects you from retaliation. If you report bullying, no law protects you. For more on workplace bullying, check out my articles Help! My Boss Is An Abusive Jerk and 7 Ways To Protect Yourself If Your Boss Is A Bully.
  3. Discrimination: Discrimination against you for being you isn't illegal. However, discrimination and harassment due to race, sex, sexual identity, national origin, disability, religion, color, pregnancy and genetic information are. In some states, there are more categories of illegal discrimination. Whether sexual orientation is a protected category depends on your state and local law. No federal law bars sexual orientation discrimination. Discrimination laws don't apply to everyone. If you're an intern, independent contractor or work for a company with fewer than 15 employees, you may have no legal protection against discrimination.
  4. Human Resources: If your employer is big enough, you probably have someone who is designated as the Human Resources person or a whole department called "Human Resources." It may be referred to as HR. This is the place to go for information about work rules, to report sexual harassment or discrimination, and you'll probably have to go there on your first day to fill out a stack of forms. While they can be very helpful if you have questions or concerns, they aren't your buddies. Human Resources represents your employer, not you. They aren't your mom or your best friend, so don't go to them with every petty complaint, confess you did something wrong, or tell them about the wild party you went to over the weekend. Keep it professional. For more on HR, check out my article HR Wants To Meet! What Do I Do?
  5. Contracts: In most states, if you're under 18 you can't be bound by a contract, including an employment contract. You (or your parents) can void a contract you've signed while underage. However, once you turn 18, you probably can't void it anymore. Employment contracts might have provisions saying you can't work for a competitor for a year or two, waiving your right to a jury trial, confidentiality obligations, and other important clauses. If you are asked to sign a contract, always read it and keep a copy once you've signed. If you don't understand it, talk to your parents or an employment lawyer in your state about it.
  6. Social Media and Cell Phones: You are expected to work during work hours. That means no texting, emailing, calling, social media, downloading, or surfing at work, unless it's work-related. If you check your texts, emails, or social media on a company computer, cell phone or other device, the company probably has the right to look at it. If you view or send inappropriate pictures, jokes, or videos, you can be fired for doing so. There is very little privacy in the workplace, and you have few rights. Assume you're being watched at all times at work and you won't go wrong. Oh, and remember all those party pics and embarrassing photos you posted before you started applying for work? Employers and potential employers can see them. You probably want to check your social media pages and pull down anything you can that might be inappropriate for an employer to see. For more on workplace privacy, check out my article 10 New (And Legal) Ways Your Employer Is Spying On You.
  7. Dangerous Work: It is every employer's duty to maintain a safe workplace. If you think your workplace is unsafe, you can contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to report dangerous conditions and get more information. Certain jobs are deemed too hazardous for teens under 18 to do.
  8. What Kind Of Work You Can Do: Depending on your age, there may be limits on the type of work you can do. If you are under 14, you can work, but your options are limited. You can deliver newspapers, babysit, act or perform, work as a homeworker gathering evergreens and making evergreen wreaths, or work for a business owned by your parents as long as it's not mining, manufacturing or one of the occupations designated as hazardous. If you are 14 or 15, you can do things like retail, lifeguarding, running errands, creative work, computer work, clean-up and yard work that doesn't use dangerous equipment, some food service and other restaurant work, some grocery work, loading and unloading, and even do some work in sawmills and wood shops. We're talking non-manufacturing and non-hazardous jobs only. If you are 16 or 17, you can do any job that isn't labeled as hazardous.
  9. Handbook: Read your employee handbook. It contains important information about discrimination, workplace rules, calling in sick and other things you need to know.

Of course, my book Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired can help anyone new to the workplace since it covers how to handle workplace crises and issues from the interview and application, to your first day and that giant stack of papers, to workplace disputes, to promotions, to termination, and even post-termination. Plus, I write here every week about workplace rights. You can get more information by checking out my articles every week and looking at my past articles on employment laws.

Think you know everything about your workplace rights now? Wait, there's more. Stay tuned next week for my article on what every teen needs to know about wages, hours, unpaid internships and breaks.


If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs.

Please note: Anything you write to me may be featured in one of my columns. I won't be able to respond individually to questions.
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