It's Inappropriate, but Is It Illegal? 7 Iffy Office Scenarios

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: November 5, 2012

Are your workplace words and actions fun and harmless, or are you violating federal laws? Since people have various thresholds of what is appropriate and what is not, the answer is rarely black and white.

This article explores seven scenarios that are at the very least inappropriate, but at their worst can eventually lead to loss of employment, an eroded reputation, and sometimes even legal action.

Having a good time

You like to knock back a few beers with colleagues after work.

Having a few too many and donning the proverbial lampshade won't be good for your rep and it certainly won't put you in line for the next big promotion, but it isn't illegal as long as it occurs outside of work time and isn't perceived to interfere with the way you do your job.

Having a good time . . . on work time

You have too much to drink on your lunch hour, or show up to work under the influence of drugs. Using drugs while working is illegal -- a fact made clear in most company manuals.

If policies against drug use are in the employee manual, federal law allows employers to perform drug testing with no warning.

Dating your colleagues

Dating your boss, subordinate, or co-worker may not be illegal, but it's not good practice either.

Inter-office dating can create difficult, unprofessional work environments, and is particularly awkward when break-ups occur.

Sexual harassment

Making inappropriate sexual comments (including those made passively, such as through offensive posters on the wall or via email), unwelcome sexual advances, or requests for sexual favors that create a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment is a violation of the Sexual Harassment Law established by the Supreme Court, and is subject to both company and legal action.

In addition, a person's acceptance or rejection to sexual advances may not be tied to that person's employment. Since perception is often reality in these cases, it's best to avoid sexual behavior entirely.

Stealing a few moments

Sending personal emails, checking your Facebook account, or using time to handle personal issues during work hours is inappropriate, unproductive, and may result in serious consequences from your employer, but it probably won't land you in the pokey.

Be sure you are aware of company policies and tolerance levels before you do anything personal on company time.

Stealing money or goods

While most people realize that stealing money from their employer is a no-no, many people don't think twice about lifting things like supplies, assuming employers have plenty and won't miss them.

Think twice before you nick that ream of paper for your own personal use. Stealing directly from your employer can land you in jail, is embarrassing, and in some cases can cause you to lose licenses and certifications.

Making jokes or off-color remarks

As long as the jokes aren’t based on a person or a particular group of people, or can’t be construed as slanderous, hostile, or discriminatory, you are safe.

That being said, who is to define what is slanderous, hostile, or discriminatory? If you must flex your politically incorrect side, do it outside of work with friends and family.

Discriminating against others based on religion, cultural background, race, gender, sexuality, or disability

There’s no faster way to land you in serious hot water, both with your employer and with the law. Remember that what you consider to be "teasing" or "joking" others might find extremely threatening, hostile, or offensive.

Put the above topics on your taboo list.

Spreading rumors or engaging in gossip

In most cases talking about your co-workers or kvetching with others isn't illegal, but it can be disruptive to the work environment, create divisiveness and conflict, and can cast those who gossip in an unflattering light.

A good rule of thumb is to engage in gossip or rumors only when they cast a person in a positive light (i.e. "Did you hear Ann got a promotion?") rather than in a negative light (i.e. "Did you hear Ann got a promotion -- because she slept with the boss?").

Actions which slander or show hostility

Words or actions that may ruin someone's reputation, that create a hostile environment in which the subject can't perform his or her job, or that are perceived as "bullying" are illegal, and are subject to action by both your employer and the law.

Obviously you'll want to avoid overt comments intended to harm a co-worker. However, since even the most innocent of remarks can quickly grow out of hand, it's best not to engage in any type of negative gossip or rumors at all, no matter what your intentions.

We all have bad days at work.

Storming into an office without knocking or raising your voice at someone is completely inappropriate, won't solve any issues, an exhibits an embarrassing lack of self control, but in most situations it isn't illegal.

Intimidating behavior

If your behavior can be perceived as threatening, it's illegal.

Charging at someone, shouting in someone's face, or engaging in pushing and shoving is subject to both disciplinary and legal action.

Downloading family pictures, emails, or personal documents

While using your work computer to download personal stuff certainly infringes on your work time, most employers don't mind very occasional personal use of your work computer as long as it's quick and doesn't become a habit.

Excessive use of your work computer for personal reasons is often subject to disciplinary action and maybe termination, but rarely legal action. Stay safe by familiarizing yourself with your company's Internet usage policies.

Downloading illegal pictures, software, or music

When you use your work computer inappropriately and illegally, not only do you put yourself at risk, you put your employer at risk too.

Should your employer be responsible for any damages, you can bet they’ll do their best to pass them on to you.

But One Thing's For Certain...

Perhaps an interviewer is asking you an illegal question, or maybe it's just inappropriate. Either way, if they make you an offer and you're willing to accept, you need to be prepared to negotiate salary. And Salary.com can help.

The first thing you should do is research, so you're able to come to the table armed with the knowledge of what your job is worth. Use our free Salary Wizard below to find out what's a fair salary for your position. You can enter your location, education level, years of experience and more to find out an appropriate salary range before you negotiate.

Good luck.

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