An employer must proceed cautiously when terminating an employee from his or her job. An employment law attorney from our firm can advise you about the impact of federal and state laws, as well as employment contracts and collective-bargaining agreements, on employee discharge.
Most employment in the U.S. is at-will, promising an employee no definite term of employment. This means that the employer can fire an employee for any legal reason at any time. The employee also has the latitude to quit for any or no reason without notice.
This no-strings-attached employment relationship has historical roots in early industrialization when volatile markets necessitated maximum employer flexibility. Beginning with New Deal legislation and continuing through the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and beyond, federal and state laws have chipped away at at-will employment by instituting some protections against arbitrary firing.
Employee discharge is largely governed by state laws that vary greatly, from those states embracing at-will employment to Montana, which usually requires good cause for dismissal. Even local law can have an impact. Federal law also makes a large footprint, mainly with its prohibition of illegal discrimination in the workplace.
A long-standing exception to the at-will employment doctrine has been the affirmative promise of an employer to discharge a worker only for good cause. Good cause usually means that the employee has fallen short in the quality of work performance or the employer has a legitimate economic or business reason. Employer agreement to only fire for cause is typically made in an express or implied employment contract or in a collective-bargaining agreement with unionized workers.
A developing restriction on at-will employment is the public-policy exception, which restricts employers from firing employees for various reasons considered unacceptable by society. A well-known public-policy exception is whistle-blower protection. Whistle-blowing essentially occurs when an employee reports an employer's illegal activity to the government. Employer unlawful activity could encompass anything from violations of environmental to tax to anti-discrimination laws. In many situations, the law protects an employee who reports illegal activity from retaliatory firing, demotion or reassignment.
Other common public-policy exceptions include:
- Protection of employees who refuse to follow employer orders to break the law
- Protection of employees who fulfill legal duties, such as leaving work for jury service
- Protection of employees who exercise legal or constitutional rights
Federal law prohibits discrimination in employment, including employee termination, on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, pregnancy, disability, age, union support, military affiliation or citizenship. Federal law also protects from retaliation employees who refuse to participate in unlawful discrimination or who oppose such practices.
State or local law may add protection to additional classes of people, such as sexual orientation, status with regard to public benefits, legal activity outside of work hours or marital status.
State Law Remedies
Varying from state to state are other legal restrictions on an employer's right to fire employees. State remedies established either by statute or by the courts may be available in your jurisdiction such as wrongful discharge, breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Speak to a Lawyer
This is only a broad overview of the law affecting employee discharge. As an employer, a knowledgeable employment lawyer at our firm can advise you about federal, state and local laws that restrict your ability to terminate employees.
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