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We have had several questions that have been closed because they had a legal component to them. But we live in a heavily regulated society so nearly every question on the site has laws that apply to it. We all have a basic understanding of the law through training, and just the basic knowledge we need to have success in the workplace.

For instance we need to know the laws regarding speed limits to drive to work, and those things that we can and can not say in the office to avoid harassment and hostile work environments. Many of us work in highly regulated industries so as a community we have a wide knowledge of the general laws that apply to people in the workforce.

How can we identify a question that is asking for Legal advice versus a question asking for workplace advice where there are laws that may apply?

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    Hah! I wanted to post something nearly exactly like this after a few of the questions. – enderland May 20 '13 at 14:19
  • I am very happy to have found this well worded question. :-) – Mister Positive Mar 3 '17 at 13:47
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Legal advice is asking a question that needs an answer by a lawyer, not a HR manager or career guidance counselor.

If the "legal" question is something that our site's target audience should be expected to know the answer to, then the question is OK for the site.

For example, I would consider the following "legal" questions OK for the site because they are things that HR managers should know the answer to.

If the question is one that makes most HR managers say "This is not part of my job domain, let me consult with our lawyer", then it is off-topic.

For example,

There is a difference between asking "What legal actions can I take for X", and "What actions can I take for X" where the answer is "You should be consulting with an employment lawyer" though. The first I would consider off-topic. The 2nd, probably not.

Questions which ask something along the lines of "I've been wronged by my employer, what are my options?" are not necessarily off-topic.

For example,

Other questions which I consider OK are ones where the answer would be "You need to read your contact" or "You need to consult with a lawyer".

There are many new and naive members of the workforce that do not know their rights or legal options at work (I consider myself one of them), and that do not always realize the obvious answer.

So as a summary, if the answer to the question is something that our target audience can be expected to provide, then the question OK. However if they are asking something that is not part of our target audience's expected skill set and knowledge base, then it is off-topic.

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    As per my answer below, I'd change the "is it legal to discriminate against smokers" question to be, "how can I legally discourage smoking?" which is more or less the same thing, but not a yes-or-no question that will provide more guidance. – jmac May 22 '13 at 23:36
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    The spectrum of backgrounds among the participants here is far broader than HR. Lest we forget that. I don't think that if the question lacks an HR flavor, like the second set of questions you listed, are as off topic as you thus far presumed. Sure, they might be outside of your comfort range, and even outside of mine in some respects, but I don't think that it necessarily precludes everyone else willing to look at them. And some did, with reasonable attempts, before they were shut down... – JustinC Jun 1 '13 at 11:17
  • I suspect that should be "you need to read your contract", not contact. – a CVn Jul 11 '13 at 17:09
  • @jmac asking is it legal to discriminate against [smoking status/ethnic origin/sexual orientation] is the question that can be given a canonical answer referring the laws, its interpretations, and even the sentences against companies. But asking 'how can I legally discriminate [smokers/homosexuals/Asians]' is exactly asking for the instructions how to circumvent or creatively adapt the law to one's (doubtful) needs. It's a legal advice for me (leave away, an immoral one). – user1023 Feb 19 '15 at 15:18
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This may sound tautological, but if the question is primarily asking for interpretation of the law, then it is a question for a lawyer. If the question is asking for general guidance, of which law is one aspect, then I think it is appropriate for the site.

For instance, if someone asks, "Is it legal to turn a blind eye to fraud by a superior?" it is going to be a legal question, but asking, "What are my responsibilities in regards to reporting fraud by a superior?" the legal side would only be one aspect, and the answer would have value since it would say more than just, "Consult a lawyer."

Basically, I think the approach for The Workplace should be to suggest edits (or aggressively edit) legal questions to cover a broader aspect of the situation whenever possible, and close if the only possible response is, "consult an attorney".

  • This is a great summary of my thoughts. Combined with @Rachel's answer this is exactly how I think legal types of questions should be handled. – enderland May 22 '13 at 11:25
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    I'd add to that, that legal advice is primarily an 'advice', so something adapted to the given, localized situation of the given person. Asking for general rules, without referring to the specific situation, is the question about law, not legal advice. – user1023 Feb 19 '15 at 15:12
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If someone asks "What are my rights?" or "Do employers have the right?" those are defined by labor law specific to each jurisdiction. If the question can reasonably be interpreted as asking about rights, it's best to stay away from an answer, unless you are a lawyer.

  • You don't agree that mentioning "rights" implies a legal question best handled by a lawyer? – Joe Strazzere May 20 '13 at 18:09
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    that is correct that I do not agree with that statement – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 20 '13 at 18:10
  • (shrug) I'm at a loss here. Perhaps nothing requires a lawyer. – Joe Strazzere May 20 '13 at 18:15
  • @JoeStrazzere if only that were the case... :) – enderland May 22 '13 at 18:07
  • So you would vote to close any question where the OP asks if it's legal to discriminate, for example, against ethnic origin? This is what I've read from you question. Correct me if you're rong. – user1023 Feb 19 '15 at 15:13
  • Yes - far too much confusion arises from such questions. IMHO, that's a question for a Legal forum, not Workplace. But I don't run things here. I just try to understand and follow the rules. – Joe Strazzere Feb 19 '15 at 17:31
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Disclaimer and reminder: This is not a law office, and I am neither judge nor a lawyer; but I did stay at a certain unnamed motel and this is what I experienced in a remotely similar fashion. Moreover, I do not often delve deep into meta, but when I do...

It is often to advocate for the stance less popular, not because I believe it best, but because I feel the roots of conventional wisdom has grown too strong in this regard.

And so on and so forth.

Most questions will never point explicitly to a primary premise of being a localized, legal concern with real ramifications, but all questions have immediate legal ramifications whether we [often] think about it not. Usually it is not the case that we consciously weigh legal ramifications while we ponder more banal matters of our day, but who is to say some SO or Programmers or Security post does not make the difference at some point for the ephemeral 'bad guy'. There is no way to prevent it. It is not even remotely possible. It is completely counter to the ideals of our society. We cannot be productive if we worry about that sort of thing all the time, so why worry about it at all, especially in a venue like this (so long as it does not create an explicit, controllable conflict of interest for our generous host and our sponsors).

Some posters are better at keeping the personally damning aspects out of their initial post. They keep the question in a sanitized, representative form concerned with general application or purpose of an issue. That is a safe thing to do. Occasionally they may unintentionally note or raise the concern of legal ramifications. At times, the conflict of interest or personal stake leaks through.

Which is worse in that case, possibly bad advice given, or no advice? Leave them blowing in the wind, or give them some bare minimum to grab on to? At least with the bad advice, they have a next step to take, even if they might have to take two steps back. That is how progress works: sometimes a little forward, sometimes a little back.

In any case, whether the concern involves a potentially obvious legal issue or not, the advice seeker must assume some responsibility for seeking the advice of anonymous lay people to their problems, even if we strive and generally provide a good community and good advice with the information we have to work with. Only if we purposefully or maliciously misrepresent ourselves would our bad advice be particularly unfortunate.

TLDR I think we should reconsider how tightly we hold the reigns in regards to questions that smell of legal or legally related concerns.

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    The Workplace is an extremely subjective topic. I try to stay away from the word "advice" whenever possible because it may lead us to believe that anyone can answer a question. Ideally, the answers we give should be expert answers, correct and backed up with some form of facts, references, or experiences that happened to us personally. If we can do that on a question, then I believe the question is worth keeping open, even if some edits must be made to push it further away from the edge. – jmort253 Jun 2 '13 at 4:21
  • Also, this lessens the impact that bad information will be given. It's still possible, but at least future visitors who come to our site can validate the answers much easier and determine if that information is good for them. – jmort253 Jun 2 '13 at 4:24
  • The quality of the answers will coincide with quality of the question, normally. If we want better answers, we have to work harder for better questions. Better questions can come to us in three ways: selection, by filtering out questions that don't meet our interruption or feel for the quality we want; shaping or sanding rough questions into polished questions; or solicitation and finding experts with questions of their own. Relying on selection is going to shrink the reach of the community. It will, no matter what statistics might be conceived to suggest otherwise. – JustinC Jun 2 '13 at 4:45
  • Selection promotes a closed community. You need to be this tall to play. Shaping or sanding questions will take more work from the community. A lot more work. Perhaps more effort needs to happen to make that a more measured/incentivized goal of the community. Solicitation is not much more than a hope and a prayer. Rock stars have a way of finding out what they immediately want without the need a vast community, normally. – JustinC Jun 2 '13 at 4:47
  • I sort of see this like a seesaw. Many questions that we perceive to have problems, like legal questions, can be perfectly fine on SE if the answerers bear the brunt of the responsibility of making sure the information they post is solid. Since questions are harder to ask, and are asked by newer users, and since answerers tend to come from our community and know the rules, I propose lightening up on legal questions but making sure the answers follow the back it up rule. – jmort253 Jun 2 '13 at 5:02
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    One thing that might really help is if we change how questions are characterized. Instead of thinking of them as 'owned questions' we think of them more as 'sponsored topics' where a great deal more discretion and responsibility is inherently given to the community to shape questions. – JustinC Jun 2 '13 at 5:06
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    I really support the idea of making bold edits if that's what it takes to save a question. The asker can always come back and tweak it further once an experienced editor gets the ball rolling. :) In short, "community owned" is a good way to look at it. – jmort253 Jun 2 '13 at 5:08
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    And of course, add subsequent information to the question as necessary through comment requests, or by desire when the question is edited towards a direction contrary to what they really want. – JustinC Jun 2 '13 at 5:10
  • I like that approach, @JustinC, many times the solution is to just find the right balance of constructiveness to minimize the number of close votes while also keeping the topic reasonably close to what the asker is looking for. – jmort253 Jun 2 '13 at 5:13
  • I can certainly appreciate that. It is comparatively easy to 'close' a topic rather than improve the question. And what is the comparative incentive for all that trouble? Not a lot I would guess, as I tend to avoid either route in all but the rarest of circumstances. – JustinC Jun 2 '13 at 5:24

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