Introduction to Legal Rights and Responsibilities

People do not have the same rights on their jobs that they have as citizens. Individuals who want to be employed must arrive on time, follow orders, accept limits on their speech and privacy, and conform to a host of other regulations. Those who want to manage must leave their personal prejudices at home and enforce workplace rules, such as safety protocols, even if they decrease productivity. Broadly conceived, the ultimate paradox presented by employment is this: To get something (money, responsibility, opportunity to make a difference), employees must give up something (liberty, time, discretion).

Many workplace obligations and restraints are rooted in the law, and agency leaders must know these principles. In light of these many challenges, perhaps the prudent course for a manager to take is to call a human resource professional or attorney with every specific question. Of course, managers should consult with legal experts regularly, but they must make choices daily about how work is to be performed, often with little time for input from others. A basic understanding of the law, which this chapter begins to provide, will help a manager make better snap decisions and recognize when to delay a decision and consult an expert.

The balance struck varies from situation to situation and changes dynamically over time. Indeed, as attitudes, social norms, and economic conditions change, previously resolved issues may resurface (e.g., health insurance benefits for family members may extend to same-sex partners/spouses) and new areas of contention arise (e.g., whether veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder have a disability that must be accommodated).

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