Dos and Donts in the Workplace

By: Tim Bryce

The following is an excerpt from my new book, "MORPHING INTO THE REAL WORLD - A Handbook for Entering the Work Force" which is a survival guide for young people as they transition into adult life. The book offers considerable advice regarding how to manage our personal and professional lives. As a part of this, I found it necessary to discuss the legal ramifications of employment.

Do's and Don'ts in the Workpace (Part I)

Life is full of rules and regulations. The only reason we write rules is to protect us from those who would break them. In past essays, I've discussed several unwritten rules for acclimating into the corporate culture. Now we will focus on the formal written rules you will be dealing with in your professional life, along with commentary on how to deal with them.

RULE #1 - GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING. Like it or not, we now live in a litigious society where lawsuits are issued at the drop of a hat. When you first join a new company you will likely be inundated with documentation requiring your signature. Be sure to review the terms and conditions carefully before signing anything and make sure you retain a copy of all documentation for your personal files at home. If you have any questions, ask for clarification. Some of it will only apply to your term of employment, others may follow you for quite some time thereafter (sometimes in perpetuity). Some of the documentation will pertain to government regulations, such as for income taxes and social security, some will relate to benefit programs, such as your health care providers, and some relates specifically to your employer. Most will use standard legal language. Regardless, read everything carefully and, when in doubt, seek suitable legal advice.

Employment

As a new employee, you must be cognizant of your employment status which is defined for government reporting purposes. There are two types of employment status:

EXEMPT - This represents professional workers who are paid a salary as opposed to an hourly wage (typically compensated on a monthly basis). The term "exempt" means the worker is exempt from certain wage and hour laws. For example, exempt workers may work many hours and are not paid overtime.

NON-EXEMPT - The opposite of exempt. This is normally administrative workers or laborers who are paid an hourly wage and subject to certain wage and hour laws. For example, they are limited in terms of the number of hours they may work (such as 40), are paid a special rate for overtime (extra hours), and may be entitled to specific breaks during the work day.

Punctuality

Regardless of your employment status, there will be defined working hours you will have to observe. The only difference is that non-exempt workers must watch the number of hours they work more closely than exempt workers which is inconsequential. Non-exempt employees can be docked for pay if they are late to work or leave early.

Most employees will follow a fixed schedule of working hours, such as 9:00am to 5:00pm. However, some companies make use of "Flex Time" for exempt employees. This is a time management program that allows employees to keep more flexible hours than a fixed schedule. They may come in early one day (and leave early), and late another (and leave later). This allows employees to make personal appointments either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Regardless, they are still expected to work a certain number of hours during the day and week.

The amount of time allowed for lunch varies from company to company; most allow 30-45 minutes for lunch.

This emphasis on starting/stopping times, both in the workplace and in school, has created a generation of "clock watchers," people more interested in counting the number of hours they spend at work as opposed to the work they are to produce. Not long ago, I was visiting a client in Ohio where a young programmer bragged to me he had worked 14 hours that day. I asked him what he had produced during that time. After much hemming and hawing he admitted he hadn't actually produced much of anything. I admonished him that he should be more concerned about the volume of work he was producing as opposed to the amount of time he spent producing it, particularly since he was an exempt worker.

In every work day you will see people slowly getting started for the day and ramping down towards the end. Being a baseball fan, I would often use the analogy that the work day was like a professional baseball game, particularly for exempt workers. First, the players do not show up at game time, they are usually at the ballpark earlier to warm up and take batting practice. And second, they give it their all throughout the game until the last out is made. In other words, if you are a slow starter for the day, try to get to work a little earlier so you are awake by the start of the business day, and; give it your all until the close of the business day. After all, isn't this what you are being paid for?

Personal Time, Sick Days, Vacations and Holidays

During the work day you will be entitled to take some breaks to refresh yourself. Such breaks are invaluable for clearing your head and refocusing on your job. Of course there will be those "time wasters" who will abuse this privilege and take more breaks than normal. This type of person is putting his personal interests ahead of everyone else's. In other words, he is not a team player. Be leary of such people as management will inevitably weed them out.

You should not have any problems taking a break if you have developed a reputation for delivering on assignments and have developed a trust with your boss.

In terms of sick days, you will be entitled to take a certain number, but understand this: they are for illness, not for vacations or hangovers. Nothing raises suspicions with management more than excessive use of sick days. Some companies even mandate that if you are sick, you give some form of evidence to that effect, e.g., a doctor's note.

You will also be entitled to take a certain number of vacation days during the year. Check with company policy to see if they must be taken as contiguous days or randomly, such as on a Friday now and then. Perhaps the hardest part in terms of taking a vacation is scheduling them. It is not uncommon to have to request your vacation many months in advance. Because of the need to keep your department operational, a manager does not want to strip the staff down to a point where it cannot adequately service its customers. Consequently, vacation schedules must be arranged in advance. Further, vacation schedules may be based on seniority. This means you, as the Newbie, are often the last one to schedule a vacation.

In terms of holidays, you will be entitled to standard days, e.g., New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas. However, your company may also observe other days, such as Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, Chanukah, etc. Consult management for all of the holidays you are entitled to.

Next week in Part II I'll describe such things as Moonlighting, Discussing Salaries, Job Titles, and Employment Contracts.

If you would like to discuss this with me in more depth, please do not hesitate to send me an e-mail.

Careers and Job Hunting
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