An employee being fired is a stressful event for not just the employee, but also for the employer and everyone else involved. For an employee, getting fired can be devastating emotionally, professionally, and financially. And while there are certainly times when an employee being terminated is the most appropriate outcome, employers rarely look forward to having to fire an employee.
When an employer believes that the circumstances warrant termination of an employee, it is wise to first take a step back and make sure that the company is not being made vulnerable to a wrongful termination lawsuit, which would just add to the stress and conflict. Similarly, an employee who believes they have been terminated for illegal reasons should take the time to determine whether a legal claim against the former employer should be pursued.
There are several reasons why employees file wrongful termination lawsuits. Employers who avoid some common mistakes can greatly reduce the chances of being sued after firing someone. From an employee’s standpoint, an employer who makes one of these errors when firing you could leave you with a viable argument that you were wrongfully terminated from your employment and entitled to compensation.
Common Mistakes That Lead to Wrongful Termination Lawsuits
It is easily understood that an employer who has entered into a written employment contract with an employee will make themselves vulnerable to a wrongful termination lawsuit if they violate the terms of the employment contract.
However, most Americans are at-will employees. At-will employment means that the employee is free to quit their job at any time and for any reason, or for no reason. Likewise, the employer is free to fire the employee at any time and for any reason, or for no reason (so long as they are not firing the employee for reasons similar to those addressed in this article).
Nevertheless, many employers find themselves targeted by wrongful termination lawsuits by at-will employees. All 50 of the United States are at-will employment states, meaning that at-will employment is the default type of employment, unless an employer agrees in writing that an employee can only be terminated for specific reasons.
Because most employees in the United States are employed on an at-will basis, that is the type of employment this article will focus on. Following are some of the most common mistakes employers make that make them more likely to be sued for wrongful termination.
Illegal Reasons for Termination
In general, an employer can fire an at-will worker with no explanation at any time. However, an at-will employee cannot be terminated for any of the following reasons:
- Retaliation for filing a complaint or grievance against the employer or a fellow employee, including retaliation for reporting sexual harassment
- Discrimination based on the employee belonging to a class protected by state or federal law. Employees are protected from a termination that is based on their age, race, national origin, religious beliefs, gender, disability, or pregnancy
- As punishment for attempting to organize or participate in a union
- To deter other employees from filing for worker’s compensation benefits
Terminating an employee for any of these reasons is considered wrongful termination. Additionally, words or actions that may give the appearance that any of these reasons led to the termination will likely lead to a lawsuit.
Promising Too Much
Other grounds for wrongful termination seem less intentional. For example, an employer is often excited about the possibility of bringing new talent to the company and wants to be sure that they highlight the positive work environment and compensation package the company offers. An employer may also be tempted to emphasize the company’s ability to provide long-term career opportunities in an effort to make the position more appealing to a promising candidate
However, in order for employment to be considered at-will employment, neither side can make any legally enforceable promises to the other. If an employer implies to job applicants (who are later hired) that they can expect to work for the company for years, it may give the employee grounds to pursue a wrongful termination suit if the employment relationship falls through, although verbal promises are often hard to prove.
Not Taking Internal Evaluations Seriously
Many companies treat their employee evaluation process as merely a formality. It’s important that the process is taken seriously, though, because if problem employees receive favorable or satisfactory evaluations, it will be much harder to prove that they were terminated for a legitimate reason.
It may seem confusing why an at-will employer which, as stated earlier, can fire an employee for any reason or for no reason, would need sub-par evaluations to prove the employee was fired for valid reasons. But imagine a case where a terminated employee claims they were fired for discriminatory reasons like race, disability, religion, or sex.
In such a case, an employer will need evidence to prove that the termination was for other nondiscriminatory reasons, like poor performance. Hence, documenting employee performance in a truthful manner is one of the best ways for an employer to lower exposure to wrongful termination suits from ex-employees claiming they were fired for discriminatory reasons.
Terminating Employees to Save on Wages
While the ultimate goal for any business is to make money, an employee will have a viable claim for wrongful termination if they are terminated in order to save the company money by bringing in someone who will work for a lower salary.
All employers are open to ideas to cut costs, but a good argument for wrongful termination can be made by an employee who is fired and can show that their former employer fired them for no other reason than to fill their position with someone that will do the same job for less money.
This makes it especially important for employers to be sure they can point to a reason for termination, as any terminated employee can claim that their termination was based on their being a member of a protected class (as mentioned earlier). If a terminated employee has evidence that their firing may have been discriminatory, and an employer is unable to provide proof to back-up the reason for which they claim to have fired the employee, a court of law will be more likely to suspect discrimination.
Should Employers Hire a Lawyer for Assistance?
The very nature of employee termination leaves many employees angry and vengeful, so employers are unfortunately at risk of being sued for wrongful termination anytime an employee is fired, even if the employee was fired for completely valid reasons.
For this reason, any employer who is worried that they have or may expose their company to a wrongful termination lawsuit should hire an experienced employment attorney before a problem arises. By doing so, you can make sure that your hiring and firing processes are best suited to protect your company from wrongful termination lawsuits.
If an ex-employee threatens a wrongful termination lawsuit, it is best to at least consult with an attorney, even if you think that the suit will ultimately be unsuccessful. Ensuring that your records are in order may help to thwart an employee who would otherwise file an unwarranted wrongful termination suit.
Should I Hire a Lawyer?
An employee who suspects that they have been terminated for any of the reasons above or for any other reason that seems unjust should contact a wrongful termination lawyer to discuss the possibility of suing their former employer.