Employee rights is a broad term used to describe the range of legal protections that are afforded to individuals and groups that are in the employ of business organizations. Employee rights can be broken down into four primary categories: rights relating to labor union organizing and collective bargaining; rights relating to working hours and pay; rights relating to workplace safety and workers' compensation; and rights relating to discrimination in hiring or in the workplace. Fundamental employee rights are thus a significant factor in a wide range of human resource management issues that small business owners and supervisors face today, including questions concerning employee privacy, promotion policies, drug and alcohol testing and investigations, compilation and upkeep of personnel records and files, monitoring of employee performance and actions, and interactions with labor unions and their memberships.

Contemporary employee rights were established primarily through legislation, much of which was itself triggered by societal changes. Workers also secured rights through collective bargaining, but these rights were themselves established largely through legislation. Joseph D. Levesque, writing in The Human Resource Problem-Solver's Handbook, contended that individual privacy rights in the workplace have seen their greatest growth over the last century or so in three primary legal areas: federal and state constitutional law, state statutory law, and various forms of related tort law. "Most courts applying provisions of the U.S. Constitution [to employee rights in the workplace] have focused on two primary issues: autonomy and confidentiality. Autonomy has been normally limited to matters of free choice involving such personal and sensitive issues as marriage, sexual affiliations and practices, and contraception. More recently it has touched on such employer policy issues as nepotism and extramarital relations… Confidentiality has usually been a more straightforward issue involving the disclosure of information known or believed to be of a confidential nature."

Some observers—and particularly those whose sympathies lie with business owners and management—have criticized the growth in protections that have been extended to employees over the last several decades, but even those who perceive an environment of excessive regulations concede that many historic affirmations of individual rights—such as the right to equal treatment in the workplace, regardless of race, religion, or gender—are common-sense changes that do not threaten the ability of companies to operate in a proficient or profitable manner. Moreover, employers continue to "retain the fundamental and important rights to operate their enterprise and make business decisions," stated Levesque. "The manager who sees the challenge [of dealing with employee rights] will be the one who finds a solution when problems arise. This manager knows that both employee and organizational rights must be protected for the mutual benefit of both; that objectivity in the actions and decisions of managers is tantamount to judicious problem solving; and that managers must practice humane and precise methods of dealing with a more complex, informed, and idealistic workforce."

FUNDAMENTAL EMPLOYEE RIGHTS State and federal law is full of statutes that extend rights to workers in one area or another, but essentially, all of those statutes provide the following basic rights:

Employee rights is a sometimes-blurry term in today's business environment, as changing demographics, increased emphasis on individual rights in other areas of society, increased demand for educated workers, and changes in corporate management philosophies have all contributed to uncertainties about its exact dimensions. For example, many workers erroneously believe that full-time workers are legally entitled to paid vacations, sick days, etc. In reality, however, these and many other common provisions of today's workplace are is benefits, not rights. Yet paid vacation and sick days are so commonplace in many industries—as companies work to offer competitive benefit packages for prospective employees—that managers and employees come to see such benefits as staples of employee rights. Small business owners, then, would do well to research the major laws that serve as the cornerstones of employee rights and communicate the relevant aspects of those laws to their employees.


Fick, Barbara. The ABA Guide to Workplace Law: Everything You Need to Know About Your Rights as an Employee or Employer. Times Books, 1997.

Kinni, Theodore B. "The Empowered Workforce." Industry Week. September 19, 1994.

Levesque, Joseph D. The Human Resource Problem-Solver's Handbook. McGraw-Hill, 1992.

McWhirter, Darien A. Your Rights at Work. Wiley, 1992.

Mishra, Jitendra M., and Suzanne M. Crampton. "Employee Monitoring: Privacy in the Workplace?" SAM Advanced Management Journal. Summer 1998.

SEE ALSO: Drug Testing ; Employee Privacy

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