Wrongful termination occurs when an employer discharges an employee for an illegal reason.
Most Employment Is At-Will
Most workers who are fired or let go usually feel like their termination was unjustified or unfair. Even if a termination is unjust, however, it is not necessarily “wrongful” under the law. This is because most workers are considered at-will employees and can be fired at any time for any legal reason—or no reason at all. For example:
- An employer can fire a worker without warning or discipline because they arrive late to work after being in a car accident that they couldn’t have avoided.
- A boss can decide they don’t like their new cashier’s posture and terminate them after an hour of work.
- A company can decide to lay off all employees born in May.
- A CEO could fire a random employee every day at noon to create a culture of uncertainty.
Most companies don’t make it a practice to fire workers without cause because it’s not great for business: it harms their chances of attracting quality workers and can hurt their image with consumers. However, it is generally not illegal.
Wrongful Termination: Exceptions to the Rule
There are exceptions to this default rule. Generally, these fall into two categories: terminating an employee based on an illegal reason (such as discrimination or retaliation), or discharging an employee in violation of an employment agreement (a private contract, collective bargaining agreement, or union contract).
Discrimination and retaliation in the workplace are illegal acts. Using them as a basis to discharge an employee is also illegal.
Workers are protected against discrimination based on protected characteristics including race, religion, national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy, disability, medical condition, and military status. If an employee is fired for reasons related to a protected characteristic, their termination is likely wrongful.
Similarly, if an employee stands up against discrimination or another illegal activity in the workplace and their employer retaliates by firing they, they have likely been wrongfully terminated.
Another situation in which wrongful termination sometimes occurs is when an employee is discharged in violation of an employment agreement or contract.
Employment contracts can be either express or implied, and they do not always have to be in writing. Employment contracts can sometimes be created based on company policy or an employee handbook. Often, employment agreements such as these enumerate the specific ways in which an employee may be terminated, set out disciplinary programs, or guarantee a worker employment for a specified period. If the circumstances of a termination breach the employment agreement, then a wrongful termination has likely occurred.
Regardless of which type of wrongful termination has occurred, wrongful termination is almost always illegal. An employee who has been wrongfully terminated has legal rights, which he can exercise with the help of an experienced employment attorney. Workers must first understand, however, what their legal rights are, and whether they have a legal cause of action. Even in situations where a legal cause of action does not exist, an employee who was unfairly terminated may be able to use the services of an employment attorney to reach a better overall outcome by negotiating the terms of his discharge.