IT Employment

Five off-work activities that could get you fired

Most of the states in the U.S. operate under an at-will employment policy -- unless you're a member of a federally protected class, you can be fired for any reason. It may surprise you what a company could fire you for.

Most of the states in the U.S. operate under an at-will employment policy -- unless you're a member of a federally protected class, you can be fired for any reason. It may surprise you what a company could fire you for. 

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Most of the states in the U.S. exercise at-will employment rules. That is, a company can fire an employee for any reason, unless the issue at hand is protected by law, like gender, race, religion, national origin, or disability. (Currently, Montana and Arizona seem to be the only states not practicing at-will.)

This means that it could be legal for your employer to fire you over your political leanings. And that's not the only area. In a piece for Yahoo! HotJobs, Larry Buhl writes about five key areas where a company may scrutinize. According to Buhl, they are:

  • 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 competitor's 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 Obama could be trouble if you have a pro-McCain boss, and vice versa.

Union members and employees in the public (government) sector are generally more protected, but private sector employees -- the majority of the U.S. workforce -- can be fired at any time.

Buhl provides tips from legal experts 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 actions off the job 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," Paul Secunda said.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

589 comments
mark.giblin
mark.giblin

I worked for a rather large American company who tried pulling this sort of crap on us here in the UK. They got more than they bargained for, thinking we'd roll over and be thankfull that we had jobs but they were mistaken and they found out the hard way through their pockets. Fact that what this blog illustrates as acceptible in the USA, it is not in the European Union, fact is, employers have very few rights in that area, what you do in your time out of work hours is your business and as long as you turn up and perform, the employer can not say anything to you. I am surprised that this situation is allowed to exist in the USA, just goes to show what happens when employers are allowed to control the workforce 24/7, havent they herd of human rights?

MoonCHilde
MoonCHilde

Jumping from sincere joy - sometimes being in Eastern Europe and trying to be part of The West (lol?) gives you strange benefits. Here in Greece with 50% of the population being smokers (ok, so we are no.1 in EU for smoking and obesity, so sue us), having an affair within the office is not much of a hassle and possibly the least of one's worries, same with political activities et al. But ofc, we *do* have free social security for everyone ;-)

justhockeycards
justhockeycards

I haven't been in the outside workplace in 15 years-semi retired now. However, when I became a manager and then a director, I was constantly aware and conducted myself appropriately as such in the areas listed. If you worked for me and were involved, as in dating, an employee of another competitor, your access to our competitive strategies would be restricted. I wouldn't fire you, but you'd have some serious choices to make. If you were a drunk or a substance tester/abuser you would be gone. Off the job activities define who you are, like it or not.

TroyW
TroyW

I'm glad I live in Australia...

celtic0123
celtic0123

I worked for T-Mobile some years back, they had employees smoking and drinking in the attached parking lot. They were harassing the woman, sexual advances were unbelievable. They talked loudly about going to strip clubs, cheating on wives and girlfriends. One guy even made lewd comments about a manager in a different department. They discriminated against blacks. Yes! I saw all this going on. That man complained to their HR and was promptly fired. He had to file charges with the EEOC. He was paid off before it went to trial. The women who endured the sexual harassment, complained, she too was fired. So my rant here is; no matter what the rule, if you re not in the, good old boys club your job can disappear at any moment.

james
james

I was laid off over a week ago from a very solid and high-paying Sys Admin gig. I had no blogs, no drinking/smoking habits/etc, was a solid worker with a proven track record. In the end my mistake was lending an ear to a client. I listened to her woes and concerns regarding the company and how we conducted business as well as a ton of personal "problems" with my supervisor (the owner), a week later I was let go for a "Personal Conflict of Interest". Now working on drumming up clients and looking for a new gig, it really taught me a lesson. Be courteous, kind, but leave the "shoulder to lean on" to the bartenders and psychiatrists. This time, it cost me (and my family) my job.

sboney
sboney

Wow! Now I know what that means. I always thought it meant they could fire you for any work related reason they found. It isn't right. What I do and with whom, should not make a difference to anyone unless it directly interferes with the work I am suppose to do for that company.

mikebailey2000
mikebailey2000

I was booted from a Fortune 200 company for openly supporting Democrats. My immediate boss and director were fine with it, but when I participated in some MoveOn.org work (attacking our Republican incumbent) that got covered in the newspapers and radio, our giant corporate media relations team started eyeballing me as a possible hostile. My company was a Republican shop, and the higher-ups all understood that if you were a Dem you kept quiet about it. Rank and file were left alone as long as they did not rock the boat. My media coverage was too much to ignore. I was forced out within a month. My wife was 7 months pregnant at the time. Interestingly, my direct supervisor told me he was once called on the carpet for appearing in a campaign commercial with a Democrat (no company logo or anything - but one of the corporate goons recognized his face. He was standing in a crowd behind the candidate in one of those feel-good ads.) My supervisor dealt with this by simply stopping all of his political involvement. While this might have been wise, it seems like caving in to me... Also, another employee was pushed out after she raised too much money for Kerry/Edwards in 2004. She wasn't fired, but they made it clear she wasn't wanted and made her life miserable until she left. In contrast, Republican activists were coddled. I am in IT, so we were responsible for collecting equipment from workers busted for surfing porn. One big Republican (pics of Republican ex-Presidents and Senators all over his office) got busted for surfing gay porn on his work laptop. Of course he was married with kids - a true "family values" conservative. Anyway, his punishment was a two week suspension without pay, and then he was back at work. Within a year he had a job in the George W Bush administration. How much do you want to bet that a Democrat caught surfing gay porn would have been immediately fired and escorted from the building? I have seen dozens of "inappropriate surfers" fired from that company in that manner. But not the GOP activist. I started my own business after I left, and now I don't have to worry about losing my income due to political discrimination. I only accept clients who will tolerate my politics. Free market, baby. It isn't always pretty, but it is what it is. As a business owner I am glad that I am not required to employ people like the GOP activist I referenced above, but in return for that freedom, GOP-aligned companies have the right not to employ me.

tep0583
tep0583

You know, my employer has NO idea what I do when I'm not at work and I happen to like it that way. What I do when not on company time is no concern of theirs, unless I'm breaking into the company and steeling from them or otherwise abusing company resources. Fortunately for me, the company I work for has compatible views on this matter. They have better things to do than sit around worrying about what I do in my spare time. I like it that way and I'd move along if the company started trying to worm their way in to my PERSONAL life.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

I already own a company so why should I flip burgers.

Scoid
Scoid

I've heard a rumor that America is the land of the free. What an illusion!

swampengineering
swampengineering

I'm currently employed in the Great State of Mississippi, which is a "Right to Work" State. While this technically means that I don't _have_ to be a Union member (which I am, btw) to get hired into a shop. What that really means is this: "Right to Fire". In application is that the boss doesn't need a reason to fire you. He can just walk by you and decide to run your butt off. No reason given.

wrlang
wrlang

The 'diversity' of opinions is wonderful. Not that there's anything really new being said. At-will employment means the company can fire you for any valid reason no matter how small and you can leave for any reason. No one on earth is so good at their job that they can't be replaced. Societies tend to try to enforce too many rules that detract from a person's freedom. That spills over into businesses. None of the five areas listed are valid reasons for termination and I would consider it open season on any employer/boss I could prove to myself had used my personal life against me. I would get some people to go in with me to hire a private investigator to get some dirt on the jerk that caused me grief and go public with it. Follow the person to a bar, get someone to buy them a few drinks, and then call the cops on them when they drive away from the bar. If someone's going to play dirty with you there's no reason you can't play dirty back. Most people who would fire you for any of the reasons listed would not be smart enough to protect themselves from a moderately planned effort to embarrass them (without breaking the law yourself). I was working late on a persons report at their desktop a long time ago and I overheard the director of HR on the phone say they would never hire a black person for anything more than emptying trash cans. You can thank morons like that for EOE, affirmative action, and quotas, and they are much more common than you think. Common sense tells you that people don't seek a position of power over others unless they have an agenda. I don't believe that the best people are passed over to fill quotas. With 30+ years in the workforce I've never seen it. I've heard plenty of people whine about it. What I've seen is a job requiring A,B,C,D,E is posted. The person with more A,B,C or a little in each of A,B,C,D,E gets it. The person with more C,D,E whines about it because they are better at C,D,E than the other person. Well duh, there's a reason the requirements were ordered the way they were on the job desc. People tend to ignore their own weaknesses out of ego and mentally make those job requirements they don't possess less important - and then whine. My own example. I've seen several jobs that listed everything I have, but they were an hour commute to another city and they said only local applicants need apply. I could drive, take the inter-city train service, or take the frequent inter-city bus services to get within blocks of the front door. They aren't really looking for the person with the best skills, they are looking for the local person with the best skills. I even put in my cover letter the many different ways I can overcome the distance barrier, the external feature, they've erected against me. On the God issue. If you were to try and prove the claim that God exists to everyone, you would need to invoke either the sciences or the courts. The converse is also true because not being able to prove God exists is not the same as proving God doesn't exist, it just means that you haven't proven your claim. If you were to try and prove the claim that God does not exist to everyone, you would need to invoke either the sciences or the courts. And you would have the same problems as the former claimant. I agree that many people should start their own businesses. The absolutely best outcome is to get business (and government) as far away from our private lives and our freedoms as possible. The good thing about life is the people around you. The bad thing about life is the people around you. Go figure.

jpmuir
jpmuir

Hey, get real. Yep bad companies do these things but good companies do too. Especially when you are a lousy employee and they don't want to take the pains to rehabilitate you or go through the progressive discipline process. More than likely if a good company takes actions to at will dismiss an employee, there are tons of underlying reasons that maybe should have been said but weren't because lower management lacked (you know what). I know, I have done it.

Dragonofdepth@Yahoo.com
Dragonofdepth@Yahoo.com

I agree with everything that is in the article. We all have to remember that employers are too and they will do things that are not the best interest of their employees. It is understandable if their actions affect the company but other times employees actions don't and their employment at the business is terminated.

deICERAY
deICERAY

I spent how many years, marching, protesting, working for social change, trying to bring the social revolution out of the 60's and raise the level of social equality in general; and so it's come to this -I can be fired for french fries? for being a Democrat? POLITICAL firing? We've devolved into facists. All is lost. Fair protection under the law - on the good Rock Candy Mountain. All of the possible reasons listed in the article above are so sleazy, so pedantic, so invasive and so anti-democratic as to leave me practically speechless - Big Brother is coming. I'm probably already on someone's list - wait a minute, I've already been fired for being different - as in speaking truthfully, probably the most heinous of workplace offenses. At my age all I can look forward to is to practice saying "Paper, or Plastic?"

necromantici
necromantici

My employer pays me to do a job. My sexual orientation, my relationships decisions, my political views, all these are mine to do in my free non-working time. If I do my job my boss dont have to do anything with these things unless Im doing them in working hours or for example if I work in a political team for a running candidate, etc. Now, if at negotiation my future employeer told me all these constraints I would refuse to work with them because they are "buying" my workable time not my life. If the later is true then we all would be signin our contracts and NDA with blood. And for the smoking, drinking, eating issues assurance companies have meassures for those. So all that is left is the employeers personal position, and if they fail to clearify these points uppon negotiation and not late when you're employed then I cant as an employee trust my employeer so I wont be working hapily. Business is business and if your business is related directly with these points then thats must be considered at negotiation.

luvwknd
luvwknd

This article is BS, an employer CANNOT fire you because your political affiliation, they may not like your political stance, but they would have to fire you utilizing "a different term" than "we're firing him because he's a Republican"...That would not fly i the court of law...especially if it ever got to the Supreme court! If it appeared to be going that far, most employers will settle & pay you a chunck of change to STFU, end of story. This author Toni Bowers, should seek legal advice prior to posting such crap articles! Always remember one thing when it comes to judicial affairs "It's not whether your guilty or innocent, it's how much money you have to pay for your desired outcome"! Just closely examine the OJ case, plus there are many, many more high profile cases that follow this protocol! PS: I work in IT for a law firm & party with the attorneys all the time, believe me Toni Bowers is COMPLETELY wrong!

jasondlnd
jasondlnd

Employers who work in an "at will" situation can fire a worker, often without warning for any reason. I had a job awhile back, where I was "let go" for blogging on my own time, using my own equipment, because my employer simply disagreed with my blog. They claimed they fired me for "misconduct", although my blog was done on my own time, was completely legal, and never mentioned the company by name. I won unemployment insurance for that one, as the company had no legitimate reason to fire me. I ended up with a job that pays twice as much and is more fulfilling!

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

'That is, a company can fire an employee for any reason, unless the issue at hand is protected by law, like gender, race, religion, national origin, or disability. ' [i]"Canadian employment law is primarily concerned with the termination of a worker from a company. The Canada employment law strictly prohibits the dismissal of a particular employee without a subsequent form of compensation, and without the presence of a just reason. Due to this fact, companies in Canada resort to two options in dealing with the matter of terminating a worker. The first option is to find evidence or proof of just cause. In this option, employees may be terminated by grounds of certain illegal acts such as violence, thievery, severe harassment, or any activity that could adversely affect the affiliation set between employer and worker. Regarding multiple activities of lesser severity, the employer can give a predetermined level of warning to the worker. Consequently, termination will be the final result should the worker reach the maximum amount of warnings. Furthermore, careful documentation of the activities and corresponding warnings should be done in this event. The second option is to pay the worker an enormous amount of money as a way to compensate for the discharge. In this situation, employers usually refer to the length of time of the worker???s stay in computing the amount of cash to be shelled out. Employees with a higher position will receive much more than those who have lower-ranked designations. In conclusion, given these two options, employers can ensure that the tension caused by termination would be managed."[/i] This means that it could be legal for your employer to fire you over your political leanings. "Oh, Canada our home and native land...." phew!

schmidtd
schmidtd

In true at will employemnt, there is really one thing that gets you fired. The owner of the company, or their desiginated representative fires you. They only have to give a reason to the extent that can prove they are not firing you for a verboden reason. So, eats pink donughts is good enough. In larger organizations there are polices, but frankly almost all of them are CYA policies (the company is never wrong). You really only have two protections, your boss likes you OR you have some kind of contract. Which is of course why Unions existed in the first place. People who dedicate their time to negotiating contracts are better at it and you have more leverage as part of a large work force. You don't have to have a restrictive contract, but better than flying without a net! Still, I do want to end this on a positive note. Frankly most employers have wised up to importance of having a motivated work force. I am sure this nonsense will never go away, but if you know your job there is always another company who wants your skills. So if your boss starts asking questions you don't like sharing, lie and dust off your resume.

mediavant
mediavant

I'm unwilling to do the research to prove my point, but I'm fairly certain that the author is not being disciplined in her use of the terms "at will" and "fire." While it is true that at-will protects against discrimination only for legally-defined classes of people, those legal definitions vary from state to state (and cities too I believe) and do include sexual orientation in some places. Further, at will is not exclusively about hiring and firing, but also includes layoffs and other forms of termination. The term "fire" comes with its own baggage. In most cases, as I understand it, firing is "for cause" and means that the employee was at fault. That is significant, because it determines whether the employee is entitled to unemployment benefits and a number of perks that may be written into company policy for people who are "let go." In almost every example she and others have given the canned employee would immediately go down to the unemployment office and start drawing down the company's unemployment insurance fund (or whatever that's called). So companies don't really see the idea of letting someone go as a "Gee whiz, what should I do for fun today?" kind of decision. Employees can actually fail to do the job, and as long as it's not a willful failure, they can't be fired. Yes, they can be let go.

JamesRL
JamesRL

When my job got outsourced, I ended up as the guy making sure the outsourcers were doing a good job. I spent lots of time with customers, and the management of the outsourcing group. I noticed the supervisor was pretty friendly with the guys but that the sole woman in the group, who had been on contract to our company previously, was not treated as one of the guys. I witnessed harassment, unequal practises and so on. I told my boss my intentions and she agreed. I went to the boss of the supervisor, and told him my concerns and how poorly it reflected on his company and my company and how I didn't want to see it get in the way of our business. Long story short, supervisor got fired, and so did some staff. James

jdclyde
jdclyde

as anyone that supports moveon.org is quite insane....

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

I'm through flippin' burgers and fryin' fries I'm gettin' it together Because I realize that to be a success takes determination so I'm enrolling in the college of automation Ba ba ba ba dum dum If you've had it with Economic Limitation Get on Down to the College of Automation The College of Automation Just Dial SUCCESS S-U-C-C-E-S-S Success S-U-C-C-E-S-S Success........ (I would have included a link to Youtube, but I couldn't find this commercial. This post put that d@mned jingle in my head, and I was looking to repay the favor).

jdclyde
jdclyde

because it will burn on one side if you don't....

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

"At will" employment gives employers the right to fire employees for any reason, or for no reason at all. It also gives employees the legal right to quit their jobs at any time for any reason. This is what allows the boss to "just walk by you and decide to run your butt off." http://jobsearchtech.about.com/od/laborlaws/l/aa092402_2.htm "Right to Work" laws secure the right of employees to decide for themselves whether or not to join or financially support a union. This means that you don't have to join an existing union to take a job (but you may have to pay some portion of the dues spent representing you. http://jobsearchtech.about.com/od/laborlaws/a/right_to_work.htm

digitus1inOz
digitus1inOz

and I too wonder when the world we were trying to build in the 60s got hijacked by the 'suits'... :(

herlizness
herlizness

> The article is not BS, it's true and represents a disgusting reality; if you're really interested in the issue try talking to your firm's attorneys while they're still sober ... if you get the same story, consider finding a new employer ... I don't party much with lawyers but I am one.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

While it would be hard to push in a courtroom, the basis of the article is that they do not really need just cause to let you go, under your state laws. You cannot dicriminate based on political affiliation, but almost ANY other excuse will do. Such as "he spends too much time debating his political views on company time." or " because of his political affiliation, he does not get alon gwith management and staff." Or else they can just say they don't feel you are living up to expectations. Done deal. I think teh key is that they need not prove a reason, in comparison, in Canada your employer can be called to task on it. if I am tol di ma not living up to expectations, they have to offer verbal and then written warnings before they can justify letting yu go. They have to PROVE that you don't live up to expectations, whereas in the US they do not. Your comment also contradicted itself. First you mentioned how the company can't get away with it, becasue any supreme court would throw it out, and then commented that money talks. In which case the company's legal team would usually trump any private legal support you have, unless you have a tonne of cash, in which case it wouldn't matter if you got fired anyway. I have a corporate attorney in my family and have attanded cases throughout Canada and the US where emplyees tried to sue companies that he was representing. In Canada they often get a settlement, if they have a wrongful dismissal case, in the US they are usually told not to waste the courts time.

jdclyde
jdclyde

The key is, they don't have to give the reason for termination in many states. They reason may be because of politics, but it is up to you to prove that was the cause. Another tool to get rid of someone, is the magic work "downsize". Something you might learn is respect and professionalism. If you disagree with something someone posts, you can learn to present your case in a clear, logical manner without getting personal. Your level of immaturity takes a lot of points away from any credibility you hope to ever archive.

mediavant
mediavant

A contract is another way that the actions of the company can be constrained. Unions of course in many professions don't exist, and probably never will, but in some of those professions each employee may negotiate a contract. If you are not negotiating something special when hired, the employer will often pull out an "at will" acceptance form - just to drive home the point that you have "agreed."

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

that government offices ran a lot more efficiently under the old party loyalty system.... even when your party wasn't in!

Stewart Miller
Stewart Miller

If you want to get your unemployment compensation in the U.S., you better not have been fired for a good reason. Since the company is going to fabricate a reason, you're going to have to fight it by proving the real reason. Good luck. Many companies make up these reasons all the time so their unemployment insurance does not go up. Some companies make it misserable for the employee so they will leave on their own and there by forfeit compensation.

jdclyde
jdclyde

We have set laws about what is protected and what is not. Political affiliation is not a protected attribute. These are the same "free speech" ranters that you know and love.... :p Cry me a river about "fair"....

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

this is TR. :D Battle it out like little kids fighting for a swing at recess.

jdclyde
jdclyde

I surf youtube... B-) ThingOne and ThingTwo will each get on the other systems and we see who can find the funniest or coolest stuff out there. :)

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

you must have way too much free time on your hands! :D

jck
jck

but i'd rather service the needs of women...rather than geeks like you ;) :p :^0

jdclyde
jdclyde

maybe you should be selling insurance to geeks? :p

jck
jck

In Florida, an employer and an employee both have the right to terminate employment with or without notice, and with or without reason. Perhaps the unemployment insurance might ask them for a reason, but they are not required to give one to you. How that affects their policy rate? I have no idea. I don't sell insurance. :^0

jdclyde
jdclyde

and it would have to be for excessive absenteeism or theft, or something along the lines of that. Both are very easy to show. A companies hiring record is also looked at in the decision. I was once fired for lack of productivity after three months. Weakest union I have ever seen, and those people worked like dogs for dirt wages. I got my benefits because the AVERAGE new hire only makes it three weeks because of the work environment.

jdclyde
jdclyde

B-) I will be sure to tune in. THAT would be TV worth watching... ;\ Dumb people that think they have all kinds of rights and zero responsibility urk me something fierce. Next they will start going on about "separation of church and state"....... ;\

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

LOL, I can say what I want, where I want, anytime I want! Sure buddy, go for it! Let me get the camera first though. :D "Watch Culling the Herd next Tuesday at nine!"

jdclyde
jdclyde

Man, I need to get the frock out of here.... 40 minutes and I can start fighting the weekend traffic. woo woo! :D I figure it will take an hour and a half to get home....

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