5 workplace rules you didn't know you were breaking - but could get you sacked

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Have you ever sexually harassed anyone at work? How about bullying them or discriminating against them for any reason? Of course you haven't: you're a decent human being. Now, have you ever made a joke at work? What about banter or gossip? Are you entirely sure none of that crossed the line?

Every day millions of people break the rules at work - many of whom do it entirely accidentally. The problem is that in many cases these infringements are offensive to other staff members, many of them could land you in trouble, and some of them could get you fired. Alan Price HR Director of Peninsula – the HR and Employment law specialists - has revealed five rules you need to be aware of if you're going to keep your job.

1. Jokes
Price says: "Most employees get on with their colleagues and will often engage in non-work conversation during the working day. However, bad humour and rude jokes can lead to claims of sexual harassment."

The line between the two is fine, but it is clear. Price explains: "Sexual harassment occurs where 'banter' violates a person's dignity or creates an intimidating, degrading, humiliating or hostile environment. Importantly, sexual harassment is viewed from the outlook of the harassed person so what might be funny to one person could be seen as sexual harassment by another." Plus, of course, any incidents of harassment can be treated as a disciplinary matter.

2. Gossip
Price explains: "In a similar fashion, employees gossiping about their colleagues can be thought of as an accepted part of office life, but gossip will negatively affect productivity and team work and could lead to a rise in grievances."

He said employers should be setting the tone - and ought to train managers on professionalism at work. Where someone has been a victim of gossip, they need to take it seriously. If you are found to be targeting an individual, therefore, it could lead to disciplinary procedures.

3. Using your mobile phone
Price explains: "Most people believe a quick glance at their mobile phone causes no harm, however studies have shown that employers believe mobile phones are the biggest distraction." If you regularly check your phone at work, therefore, you could find yourself in trouble.

Price says that ideally companies will apply the rules rigorously and reliably, so you know where you stand from day one, but there's always the chance that one manager is more lenient than the next - so you could find yourself being allowed to check your phone one day, and then hauled over the coals for it the next.

4. Sending private emails
Employees who have access to an email account can use this inappropriately. Price explains: "If employers make employees aware that they reserve the right to monitor emails, a European ruling found that employers can monitor email accounts to ensure employees are carrying out work activity during working hours and can, therefore, access any private emails sent through these accounts, meaning disciplinary action will be easier to carry out." If you need to contact friends and family, therefore, your work email account is not the right way to do it.

5. Stealing stationery
Most people don't think of this as stealing. They might consider it to be just printing something out at work or popping a pen in their bag to do the crossword on the way home. However, Price warns: "Employers regard theft as theft, whether this is something as small as a pen or as large as a car. There is an implied term of mutual trust and confidence between employer and employee, and theft from the employer is likely to break this term and cause distrust. Disciplinary action can be taken on the basis of theft, though small incidents are likely to result in warnings whereas theft of money or corporate information could result in a fair dismissal."

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