Know your rights in the workplace

Monday Book Reviews

February 01, 1993|By Ed Brandt

EVERY EMPLOYEE'S GUIDE TO THE LAW. By Lewin G. Joel III. Pantheon. 414 pages. $13.

ARE you worried about your job, or is that a foolish question ithese times?

As thousands of people are suddenly discovering, most of us dTC work at the will of our employer and can be turned out at any time.

A Tennessee court decision of 1844 puts into colorful form the American common law doctrine of "at-will" employment: "All may dismiss their employees at will, be they many or few, for good cause, for no cause, or even for cause morally wrong, without thereby being guilty of a legal wrong."

A lot has happened since then. Federal and state laws have eroded the at-will doctrine substantially, but as the author notes in this book, it still has a ruddy, healthy complexion.

Laws against discrimination have multiplied until -- literally -- the only class unprotected by law is the white male under the age of 40, and in some states the age is 18. But the author cautions that it isn't easy, as a practical matter, to prevent illegal behavior by your employer, or make the employer pay for his misbehavior when it comes time to prove it in court.

Best defense against unfair treatment is to pay attention -- beginning with the moment when you reply to an ad -- and keep good records. Vague memories of unwelcome behavior won't work. Note when the employer is naughty or nice to you, write it down, add date and time and keep the information in a folder.

This little bit of effort might save you some day, because, as an old legal adage says: "The side with the biggest pile of papers wins."

The employer-employee relationship is essentially an adversarial one, and the author warns against going into battle unarmed. What is the best way to avoid a dangerous situation? Make employers aware that you know exactly what your rights are and what to do about them if they are violated. Employers dislike complaints filed against them with federal or state agencies and will generally make a serious effort to avoid them.

Mr. Joel, a labor lawyer, has produced a well-organized book that takes in the entire process of employment, from the hiring process to the termination.

He takes you by the hand and leads you in plain English through all the traps of employment, as well as peripheral matters such as workman's compensation, right to privacy and unemployment benefits.

Ed Brandt, a staff writer for The Sun and Evening Sun, is author of "Fifty and Fired." (Mills and Sanderson)

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