By Larry Buhl, Monster Contributing Writer
Can having a bacon double cheeseburger and a cigarette put your job at risk? Maybe. It may sound surprising, but many off-the-job actions and lifestyles could put your job in jeopardy.
Employment experts point out five key areas that a company may scrutinize:
- Smoking, Drinking and Overeating: Due to the cost of health insurance, more and more employers view "unhealthy" habits as a threat to their bottom line.
- Risky Behavior: Likewise, a company might see your bungee-jumping hobby as a liability.
- Speech: Will your employer consider your blogging to be destructive griping?
- Romantic Relationships: Dating someone at a competing company has landed employees in hot water. And some employers might take issue with unmarried coupling or even same-sex relationships. (Federal law doesn't protect employees from discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation.)
- Political Activity: Volunteering for a Democratic candidate could be trouble if you have a Republican boss, and vice versa.
Job- or industry-specific behaviors can lead to termination as well. A Ford worker who drives a Toyota is probably safe -- unless he is president of Ford. But a bank employee who bounces a personal check could get the boot.
Just Cause or Just Because
If these reasons for termination seem unfair, they must be illegal, right? Not necessarily. Just because most employers don't let valued employees loose for off-the-job activities and lifestyles doesn't mean they can't.
"Most workers in the private sector don't understand that, unless they live in Montana and Arizona, their job is at-will," says Paul Secunda, an assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi. "At-will means an employee can be fired for good cause…or no cause at all."
Federal job protections include gender, race, religion, national origin and disability. "Some state laws forbid discrimination on other bases, including sexual orientation or status as a smoker," said Rick Bales, a professor at Northern Kentucky University's Chase College of Law. Smokers in the tobacco-growing state of Kentucky, for example, are safe from termination, he said.
Don't Be Fooled
Although union members and public-sector (government) workers generally have more protections, employees in the private sector -- the bulk of the US workforce -- can be fired at any time, and usually without recourse.
"Unless you were fired because you are a member of a protected class under federal law, or under another state statute, it's likely not illegal," said Kimberly Malerba, an associate who litigates employment cases with Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, a Uniondale, New York, law firm.
The good news is that most companies don't go out of their way to snoop into employees' lives, Malerba says. "A company is most concerned with [off-the-job] behaviors that directly conflict with business interests," she says.
Five Tips to Consider
Legal experts have advice for protecting your job from unexpected dangers:
- Understand the concept of at-will employment. Don't assume that termination must be illegal just because you think it was unfair.
- Be fully aware of your company's policies and terms of employment. Read the employee handbook, and ask HR if you have any questions.
- Be familiar with the company's internal dispute mechanisms (if any) for filing grievances.
- Think before you act. Could your employer see your off-the-job actions as potentially destructive to the company?
- Don't disclose. "You don't have to disclose lifestyle choices or off-the-clock activities unless there is a clear link to your ability to perform the job," Secunda said.
"My general advice is, don't do anything on your own time that, if reported in the local paper, would reflect poorly on you or your employer," Bales says.