Losing your job is stressful under any circumstances. While few people ever feel that termination is justified, the prevalence of at-will employment throughout the United States means that most employment separations are at least legal. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It is not unheard of for employers to overstep their bounds and wrongfully terminate an employee.
These four common questions about at-will employment and wrongful termination will help you to determine if your employer violated the law when they fired you.
What Is At-Will Employment?
At-will employment refers to the ability of employers to terminate employees for nearly any reason. While there are exceptions, employers can generally choose to end an employment contract for any reason. Despite this, terminations are still broadly categorized as "for cause" or "without cause." Termination without cause does not have any immediate adverse impacts on either the employee or employer, while termination for cause will usually free the employer from paying unemployment for the terminated employee.
Is an Employer Always Free to Fire an Employee?
While at-will employment laws would seem to indicate that employers have complete freedom to terminate employment, the reality is slightly more complicated. Employers are not required to justify their termination decisions, but termination for discrimination or retaliatory reasons is not permitted. Discrimination laws protect employees who are members of protected classes from wrongful termination. The extent of these laws varies from state to state, but employees are generally protected from discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and sexual identity. Likewise, an employer may not fire an employee as a form of retaliation if the employee's actions were considered protected.
Can Contracts Protect Employees?
Employment contracts can often complicate termination cases, so the answer to this question can be complicated. Typical employment contracts do not guarantee on-going work nor do they provide any additional protections. In most cases, an employment contract does not restrict an employer from terminating an employee. In some cases, however, employers may spell out specific employment periods or make other guarantees. If clauses of this type exist in a contract, then they may effectively waive the employee's at-will status and expose the employer to breach of contract litigation. It is essential to have a thorough understanding of your employment contract so that you can recognize signs that your employer may be violating it.
When Should You Contact an Attorney?
Knowing when to contact a wrongful termination attorney is challenging. If you believe that you were fired for good reason and you do not belong to one of your state's protected classes, then the likelihood that you were wrongfully terminated is low. Outside of these situations, the most common wrongful termination cases center on retaliation for labor organization, sexual harassment claims, whistleblowing, and other protected activities. Of course, you are more aware than any one of the circumstances surrounding your termination. If you believe that your employer acted unlawfully, then you should immediately consult with a wrongful termination attorney to determine your options for moving forward.
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