Just how long is the reach of companies into workers' private lives and conversations? This worker thought his employer's reach was way too extensive.

Q We were at a restaurant and the co-worker I was with, a white girl, made a joke about the sexual prowess of her black fiance and I (a white guy) joked back. Another co-worker at a nearby table, a black girl I had never met, overheard the conversation and reported it to company officials. I was reprimanded and told that I could be fired if another "incident" occurred, but nothing happened to my lunch partner. We were off work grounds and not discussing work. Human Resources claimed that because I was talking to an employee, even if it wasn't at work, they could discipline me. This makes no sense. The girl I was talking with was not offended in any way.

A Lewis Maltby, president of the National Work Rights Institute in Princeton, N.J., said companies increasingly are trying to control at least some aspects of their employees' lives, chiefly whether they smoke outside of work, or sometimes whether they have an occasional drink.

But, he said, there is a counter-trend: More states are passing laws that, to one degree or another, prohibit companies from regulating employees' off-the-job behavior.

Maltby said New York, Colorado and North Dakota have made it "specifically illegal to discriminate against an employee for any legal off-duty conduct." Twenty-six other states and the District of Columbia have adopted less comprehensive laws, such as prohibiting employers from declaring that they won't hire people who smoke off duty.

In this case, Maltby said, "I think the company is off base. This is not quid pro quo sexual harassment" in which, say, a boss demands a sexual favor in exchange for a promotion. "If this is sexual harassment, it's of the 'hostile environment' variety."

But Maltby said that is not the case here either.

"It's got to be in the office, and it's generally got to be on duty," Maltby said, although harassment rules likely would still apply at an off-premises office party or at a dinner with co-workers while traveling on company business. "There's no law against being sexually or racially biased -- not that he was in this case -- except in the workplace. You can't subject your co-workers to your prejudice."

The company's reprimand against him but not his lunch companion "sure smells like gender discrimination," Maltby said. "It was politically easier for the company to go after the white male in this case."

So what should this worker do?

Maltby said he "should probably go back to HR and say they have no legal right to do this and ask that the letter be removed" from his file. If refused, Maltby said, the worker could file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But before the worker does that, Maltby said, he ought to consider this question: "Is he prepared to spend the next three years in court, or should he let it drop? Most companies don't take kindly to being challenged."

-- Kenneth Bredemeier

E-mail your workplace questions to Kenneth Bredemeier at bredemeier@washpost.com. Discuss workplace issues with him Wednesday at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.