Employers cannot terminate or fire an employee if the termination would violate public policy. Public policy is violated when then an employee was fired for doing something that was a protected activity either by a statute or constitutional right.

One of the most common terminations that violation public policy is when an employee is terminated for reporting an alleged unlawful conduct that the employer has engaged in. This protected activity is called "whistleblowing."

What Rights Does a Whistleblower Have?

Federal laws protect workers who speak up about an employer who is breaking the law. Viewed as the eyes and ears of workplace safety, and the witnesses to questionable behavior, whistleblowing employees are afforded immunity against retaliation and termination after reporting the employer to law enforcement. If they are terminated because of whistleblowing, they have the right to sue their employer.

When Does a Wrongful Termination Violate Public Policy?

“Wrongful Termination” occurs when an employer fires an employee in a manner that is illegal. Wrongful termination may be classified into three different types:

  • Violation of Statutes: The termination involved a violation of a law or statute, such as discrimination or retaliatory discharge against the employee.
  • Breach of Contract: The termination was based on a breach of any provisions contained in an employment contract, such as terms regarding wages or hiring.
  • Violation of Public Policy: The termination is wrongful because it violates public policy – for example, if the employee was fired for refusing to participate in an illegal act.
  • Retaliatory Termination: Employer fired employee because employee engaged in a protected activity and was fired in retaliation of engaging in the right.
  • Whistleblowing: Employee reports employers unlawful conduct and is terminated.

Employees who are wrongfully terminated may be able to recover damages for losses in connection with the firing. They may be able to recover lost wages, get their job back, or require the employee to adjust their employment policies.

How Can a Termination Violate Public Policy?

Public policy is basically a set of social norms that most people would agree upon. It is similar to the idea of “common sense”. An example of public policy is the idea that people should not be punished for exercising a legal right.

Public policy is not contained in any body of laws or statutes. However, an act such as wrongful termination may be considered illegal if it goes against general principles of public policy.

Some common examples of terminations that would violate public policy include:

  • Firing an employee for exercising their legal rights, for example the right to vote
  • Firing an employee who has refused to do commit an illegal act, for example falsifying reports or submitting a fraudulent company tax document
  • Firing an employee because they reported illegal misconduct that they observed in the company or business
  • Termination of employee for reporting an alleged unlawful conduct by employer (a.k.a whistleblowing).

Public policy standards may vary widely by region and according to the nature of the employment. Thus, when reviewing a wrongful termination claim involving public policy, a court will usually make a case-by-case analysis to determine whether a violation has occurred.

What are the Damages for Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination claims must usually be investigated by a government agency first before a private lawsuit may be filed. If the investigating agency finds that the employer is in violation, possible remedies for wrongful dismissal may include:

  • Restoring the employee to their previous employment position
  • Paying the employee lost wages
  • Making necessary changes to policies and employee handbooks
  • Lost benefits
  • Attorney Fees
  • Emotional Distress

If a government investigation cannot resolve the dispute, the employee can usually file a civil lawsuit, in which they may be able to obtain the remedies listed above. Also, if criminal charges are involved, the employer may become subject to further penalties such as fines and/or jail time.

Do I Need an Employment Lawyer?

If you are involved in a dispute over an employment termination, you may be able to obtain a remedy based on public policy principles. If you believe that you were wrongfully terminated and it violates public policy, then it is in your best interest to contact a local employment law attorney. Your employment law attorney will be able to explain to you the various laws of your jurisdiction. They will be familiarized with how public policies are applied in your area, and can represent your claim accordingly.