At-will employment is a type of employment relationship in which the employer or employee can terminate their employment contract at any time, for almost any reason, without any prior notice. This inadvertently means that both parties have the freedom to end the employment agreement without providing reasons or justifications. But this doesn’t mean that every job termination is legal. There are many exceptions where an employer would be breaking the law if they were to fire someone for a specific reason.
If you’re unsure if your employment termination was legal, the employment law attorneys at Barrett & Farahany can explain.
What Are Legal Reasons For Termination?
In an at-will employment environment, both the employer and employee have the right to terminate the working relationship without any legal consequences, making it legal for employers to terminate employees for various reasons, such as:
- Unsatisfactory performance
- Economic downturns that require downsizing
- Breach of contract
- Violation of company policies
- Failure to meet job requirements
Employers are also required to comply with federal and state laws regarding involvement in discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace. Any termination based on these grounds is considered legal.
What Reasons Are Not Legal For Termination?
While at-will employment gives employers the right to terminate employees without cause, it does not mean that they can fire someone for absolutely any reason. Employers cannot use certain reasons as a basis for termination, including:
Discriminating against employees based on their protected characteristics is prohibited by federal laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These protected characteristics can include:
- National origin
- Genetic information
Any termination made based on these factors is illegal and can result in legal action against the employer.
Retaliating against an employee for exercising their rights is also prohibited. These rights can include:
- Reporting discrimination or harassment
- Requesting reasonable accommodations
- Participating in investigations or legal proceedings
- Filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
- Speaking out against workplace violations
Employees who report illegal activities, fraud, or other unethical behavior in their company are protected by law. It is illegal to terminate an employee for whistleblowing, and it can lead to lawsuits against the employer. It also serves as rather compelling evidence that the whistleblower was onto something.
If an employer has a policy of reporting illegal activities to the company first, the employee is not legally bound to report to them first. An employer cannot in any way legally stop an employee from reporting their wrongdoing.
#4. Protected Leave
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees have the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for personal or family medical reasons. It is illegal to terminate an employee for taking this protected leave. However, an employer can fire an employee for abusing protected leave, such as by falsely claiming to qualify or overusing their leave.
#5. Military Service
Employees who serve in the military have certain protections under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Employers cannot discriminate against, harass, or retaliate against employees based on their military service. Terminating an employee for military service is illegal.
Differences Between At-Will and Non-At-Will States
While the at-will employment concept applies to all states, some have exceptions that limit its application. Non-at-will states have laws or court decisions that restrict employers from terminating employees without a proper reason, even if they are employed at-will. These reasons vary from state to state but often include public policy, implied contracts, and good faith and fair dealing.
In at-will states, these restrictions may not apply, giving employers more freedom in terminating employees. However, if an employer discriminates against, retaliates against, or terminates an employee for any of the above illegal reasons, they can face legal consequences.
Contact the Employment Law Attorneys at Barrett & Farahany for Help
At-will employment is designed to provide flexibility for both employers and employees. However, employers need to understand the legal limitations of this concept and ensure that they do not engage in any illegal termination practices. Employees should also be aware of their rights and seek legal assistance if they believe they have been illegally terminated from their jobs.
If you need legal assistance for what you think was an illegal termination of your employment, contact the employment law attorneys at Barrett & Farahany for help. We are determined to succeed against the odds by spending hours perfecting our profession and becoming better advocates for our clients. Our firm is here to help you.