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Can Bosses Do That? As It Turns Out, Yes They Can

Did you know you could be fired for not removing a political sticker from your car — or even having a beer after work? Lewis Maltby says it's more than possible — it's happened. His new book, Can They Do That? explores rights in the workplace.

As he tells NPR's Ari Shapiro, "Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment — but only where the government is concerned.

"What most Americans generally don't know is that the Constitution doesn't apply to private corporations at all."

In terms of monitoring its employees, the list of things a corporation can't do is a short one — it's basically confined to eavesdropping on a personal oral conversation, Maltby said. "Anything else is open season."

And outside the workplace, personal blogs or social media pages on services like Twitter or Facebook offer no refuge.

Asked if workers can be fired for things they write on those sites, Maltby said, "Absolutely. Happens every day."

But not all snooping is meant to be malicious, Maltby said. For instance, a boss who suspects an employee might be about to quit, or is perhaps moonlighting for a competitor, might seek out the worker's personal blog.

The worker might not have been doing any of the things the boss had feared — instead, "your boss sees you blowing off steam about him, takes offense — and you get fired."

And workers have very little legal protection against being fired, said Maltby, who is also the president and founder of the National Workrights Institute.

"I've been getting calls from people for 20 years who've been abused in all sorts of ways," Maltby said. "When I tell them, 'Sorry, you don't have any legal rights,' they literally don't believe me," Maltby said.

Companies need the freedom to run their businesses the way they want — and fire people who are seen as doing a bad job. But, Maltby says, those decisions should be based on legitimate business rationale.

Asked how some practices can persist even though a majority of workers are against them, Maltby points to a key flaw in the job market: workers' need for stable income. The need to pay for things like a home mortgage or a child's education tends to complicate matters.

"It sounds nice in theory to say, 'Walk away, and look for another job,' " Maltby said. "But in practice, most people just can't take that risk. They just put up with it."

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