Employers react to nonwork activities

WORKING LIFE

September 10, 1995|By DEBORAH JACOBS | DEBORAH JACOBS,Chronicle Features

True or false: What you do after work is none of the boss's business.

The answer ought to be "true," but in most cases the law doesn't say so. That means, in effect, a boss can fire you because he or she disapproves of any number of your after-work activities, from volunteering for a political campaign to dating a co-worker.

Ideally, companies should let you know up front what the rules are -- through a memo, employee handbook or policy statement. Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way.

Take the case of Judy Pasch, who fell in love with a co-worker at VTC Christal Radio in New York City. He sold radio and TV advertising time. She was a manager's assistant. For three years they lived ** together, and although Christal Radio knew, it didn't seem to care.

Then trouble came. Two days after her partner lost his job Ms. Pasch was bumped back to the entry-level spot she'd held 12 years earlier. Humiliated, she felt she had no choice but to quit.

Now she's suing the parent company, Katz Media Corp. In court papers, she says that the company essentially fired her and that it should pay her more than $50,000 in lost benefits and wages. Her major charge: The company demoted her because it was afraid she would get even for her beau's dismissal and leak company secrets to him should he go to work for a competitor. Once reassigned, she no longer had access to confidential materials.

The company denies the charges, and the case is scheduled for trial in October. Time will tell whether the demotion had anything to do with her living arrangements. She wouldn't comment.

Unlike most other states, New York has a broad law saying

companies can't fire employees just because they don't like a person's legal, after-work activities, says Wayne Outten, an employment lawyer in New York City. The law lists some innocuous examples: sports, games, hobbies, exercise, reading and watching TV and movies. Just last month, in a preliminary ruling in Ms. Pasch's case, a federal judge said this law also covers live-in relationships.

Still, companies in New York and elsewhere are allowed to have rules -- and they do -- against outside activities that might interfere with business. Among the topics they cover: dating between employees, accepting expensive gifts from clients and customers, and awarding accounts to one's poker buddies, for instance.

Companies also worry that workers' dangerous hobbies will spike insurance premiums. Some ask employees who engage in sports like motorcycling, bungee jumping or sky diving to pay a ** surcharge for company-funded health and life insurance, Mr. Outten says.

All of which leads to some contradictions. Sharing things about yourself helps solidify business relationships, which in turn can advance your career. Yet the passion for fly-fishing that bonds you to a co-worker with the same interest may drive a wedge between you and the boss who's an animal rights activist. Check company rules to see whether they limit your off-duty activities, and keep your antennae up for potential problems if, say, the boss disapproves of your lifestyle, politics or stance on moral issues. The company shouldn't care what you do on your own time. But sometimes the less you reveal, the better.

Deborah Jacobs, a business writer specializing in legal topics, regularly contributes to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Newsweek. Contact her by E-mail (DJWorkingaol.com) or write to her c/o Chronicle Features, 870 Market Street, Suite 1011, San Francisco, Calif. 94102. Please include your name, address and telephone number.

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