8 things most companies are allowed to do even though they seem illegal

Is A Lack Of Paid Sick Leave ​Why​ Everyone In Your Office Is Sick​?​

Do you ever see your boss do something and think, "That doesn't seem right," or "That can't be legal!"?

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't.

To help you figure out whether some of your employer's sketchy, annoying, or unethical actions are legal, we talked with employment lawyers from The Ottinger Firm.

They say laws vary from state to state, but offered a general overview of seemingly illegal actions that are actually legal in many places:

Most companies can put video cameras up in the office.

Ottinger lawyers say employers are typically allowed to put up video cameras around the office so long as they can justify them with business reasons, such as a concern for security.

But don't worry too much because the law firm says many states don't allow employers to put cameras up in either employee or customer restrooms or changing rooms. In addition, employers are generally prohibited from putting up cameras to keep an eye on specific employees.

Most companies can phone you when you're sick.

Whether you're actually sick or just playing hooky, you probably don't want to hear from your boss.

Unfortunately, in most states there's nothing prohibiting your employer from checking up on an employee who calls in sick — so long as the worker is physically able to answer the call.

Most companies can track your internet history.

You might want to close out of Facebook — and Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit.

Employers are generally allowed to track their employees' web searches and communications that take place on their network or on one of their laptops or smartphones that they provided, according to Ottinger.

If you're concerned about security, you can be comforted by the fact that most states have limitations on an employers' right to look at files that are password protected by one of your online accounts, even if you use it at work or on a work device.

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8 things most companies are allowed to do even though they seem illegal

In the past 25 years, one-quarter of companies have reduced the number of layers of management they have, moving toward a flatter, more grid-like management structure.

We've already seen it in companies like Vegas-based e-commerce site Zappos, which eliminated employee titles just over two years ago in favor of a manager-free "holacracy."

"Traditional roles are going to disappear because many workplaces are going to disappear, so the whole structural hierarchical system is going to disappear," said James Canton, PhD, chairman and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures and author of "Future Smart: Managing the Game-Changing Trends that Will Transform Your World." "You'll end up with a system, a network of humans and artificial intelligence, crowd-based intelligence — they're all going to get mashed up."

In May, NPR created a digital tool to calculate how likely it is that certain jobs will be taken over by robots 20 years from now.

Manual-labor jobs appear to be most at risk, while jobs that require empathy, like social workers and caretakers, are least at risk.

A University of Oxford report predicts that "by 2030, let alone by 2050, we'll have lost almost 50% of the workforce to artificial intelligence," said David Price, co-founder of cultural-change practice We Do Things Differently and author of "OPEN: How We'll Work, Live and Learn in the Future."

The Oxford report, which examined sectors most likely to lose jobs, noted that the transportation and logistics industry was particularly susceptible to upheaval thanks to the development of driverless cars by companies like Google.

Even jobs that seemingly require the human touch, like the classroom teacher, are at risk. 

"We're already seeing experiments with this robot in the classroom, and when you ask kids with autism which one they'd rather be taught by, the teacher or the robot, they pick the robot," Price said.

New technology doesn't always mean the loss of jobs. The invention of the printing press actually created a lot of jobs back in the day, said Price, "and we're going to gain jobs as well, but it's guesswork which jobs we'll gain."

Canton predicts a scenario in which humans and robots work side-by-side in the future, where new jobs could include operating artificial intelligence-based technology and old jobs could be augmented by it.

"We're going to need to train people — whether on the factory floor or in a call center — how to use A.I. smarter," Canton said. "So right now the era of using these knowledge bases is kind of cumbersome, but over the next decades artificial intelligence will sense what somebody is asking a customer and will help the human operator provide better service."

It's cheaper for employers, who have an entire world of workers at their fingertips, to hire freelancers as needed rather than full-time employees, as it doesn't involve a lengthy hiring process or require them to offer benefits like health insurance or social security.

Many workers are also starting to opt for freelance employment over full-time employment, giving them more jurisdiction over the hours they work and the jobs they take on.

But Price cautioned that this dynamic has the potential to exploit the labor force. Are workers choosing this route because "they want to freelance, or because they can't find a job?" Price wondered. "When companies are outsourcing so many jobs, people say, 'Well, I might as well become freelance because I can't get a job.'"

If the only reason people will freelance is because companies don't want to hire and pay full-time workers,"What kind of a society are we going to be getting?'" Price asked. "Are corporations going to employ a living wage, or are governments going to have to force that?"

People are living longer, and the cost of living keeps going up, requiring many to keep working much later in life. Younger generations also aren't saving money for retirement the way their parents' generation did, because they can't afford it.

"I think people will live and work as long as they're capable," Price said.

But advancements in medical treatments and remedies to the negative health effects of aging could mean people are more energized and suited to working at older ages, according to a report on the future of work by financial-insurance provider UNUM.

A "future of work" report from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that people will continue shifting away from the one life, one career mentality — an already observable trend among millennials. Workers will follow their passions as they change, and for many that also means changing careers.

But another driving force behind the phenomenon is a demand for social consciousness: Are companies ethically minded? Do they care about their customers, their environment, their employees?

Corporations "have to have more of a social purpose," said Price, "because people are much more ethically aware now, and people won't invest in companies that don't have a strong ethics." Companies have to prove that they're worth the time of their workers — that they have missions, values that they're invested in, and goals for becoming socially responsible in order to attract and retain employees.

The PwC report also envisions a world in which employers can monitor and screen their employees at a much more advanced level: "Sensors check their location, performance and health," the report states. "The monitoring may even stretch into their private lives in an extension of today’s drug tests."

The Daily Telegraph learned such measures will likely be met with resistance. The British newspaper installed motion detectors in early January to track their reporters but quickly abandoned them after incurring angry blowback. 

"Will companies develop a kind of 'Big Brother' approach to checking on their employees? Possibly, but I think more of them will think they need to be engaged in supporting [their employees]," Price said.

He pointed out how many Silicon Valley tech executives are setting up schools for their kids and their employees' kids in order to provide a better, more tech-focused brand of education.

"These paternalistic philanthropists who want to give their workers housing, keep them out of the pubs, [and] look after their health" may seem intruding or controlling, Price said, but "it will be in companies' best economic interest ... to play a much more active role in that."

Coworking spaces are becoming more and more popular, not just among freelancers and entrepreneurs but also corporations that can use them to relocate employees. Dissolving the traditional office headquarters would enable companies to hire the best candidates all over the world regardless of proximity to a central company hub.

Social media engagement platform Buffer announced in October that it's getting rid of its office and instead letting employees work remotely or from coworking spaces, which Buffer will pay for.

“With an office, if team members are in San Francisco it can be easy to delay meetings until all team members are in the office. The conclusion we came to is that we should always do the thing we can do immediately," said Buffer co-founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne, adding that digital advances like Google Hangouts or HipChat help Buffer survive by facilitating instant meetings, messages, and face-to-face conversations regardless of employees' locations.

Both Price and Dr. Canton imagine a world in which driverless vehicles could eliminate mass transit and transportation jobs, but on the positive side, these cars could potentially eliminate daily commuter traffic, not to mention crashes and fender benders.

"Cars are going to have V2V, a vehicle-to-vehicle capability, and self-driving cars could be preventing a lot of accidents and saving a lot of lives," Dr. Canton said — perhaps as many as 30,000 a year.

This vehicle-to-vehicle capability, technology that lets cars monitor and communicate with each other, would track the speed of each car and facilitate and ease road congestion, making commutes more efficient and headache-free.

But these technological advancements aren't an excuse for humans to grow complacent and expect computers or artificial intelligence to do all the work — on the road, or in the office.

"The preferred future is not one where machines run everything and we just go on vacation," said Dr. Canton, but rather one where human lives and jobs are made easier by the aid and advance of technology. "Our jobs are being changed because computers and networks can do [some] jobs more efficiently than humans can. That doesn't mean eliminating humans, but it means retraining humans to keep pace with it all."


Most companies can ask for a doctor's note.

If you have a strict boss, then you might not want to fake a sickness.

Ottinger says that most employers are allowed to ask for a doctor's note from an employee who takes a sick day.

However, many federal and state laws put a limit on how much information from an employee's personal medical history must be provided to justify taking a day off.

Most companies can refuse to give you a reference letter.

If your boss doesn't like you, then you might want to skip out on asking for a recommendation letter.

Ottinger says your employer has no obligation to give you any kind of reference, which could lead to some embarrassing or tension-filled situations if you're not on good terms with your boss.

Most companies can refuse to pay you for jury duty.

No one likes getting called for jury duty — until they realize they get a free lunch and a day off from work.

But before you get too excited, Ottinger says you should know that most states don't require employers to pay their employees for the hours they miss for jury duty.

However, employers are generally prohibited from punishing employees who miss part of the workday for jury duty.

Most companies can refuse to offer health insurance.

Health insurance is not guaranteed with your full-time job.

Federal, state, and local laws only require certain larger employers to provide it.

Businesses that have 50 or fewer full-time employees will face no penalty for choosing not to provide insurance, according to healthcare.gov.

Most companies can refuse to offer you a pension.

Hearing about generous pension plans can make your mouth water.

But private employers are not required to provide retirement benefits or contribution plans, according to Ottinger.

If your employer does choose to provide a retirement plan, then it must comply with the requirements and standards mandated under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

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