Wrongful or unfair termination occurs when an employee is illegally fired from their job. Most employees are at-will employees, meaning their employer is legally allowed to terminate their employment at any time. This means that an employer may terminate an at-will employment arrangement for any reason, or for no reason at all.
At-will employees are also allowed to leave their job at any time for any reason. However, there are laws in place that protect employees. If an employer breaks any of these laws in terminating an employee, it would be considered wrongful termination.
The following are some examples of wrongful or unfair termination:
- Discrimination: If an employer terminates an employee based on their belonging to a protected class, it is discrimination and is therefore considered wrongful termination. Race or color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, pregnancy, and sexual orientation are all protected classes;
- Retaliation: Employees who report their employers for workplace violations are legally protected from retaliation. If their employer responds to their actions by terminating their employment, it is illegal and wrongful termination;
- Breach of Good Faith and Fair Dealing: This is considered wrongful termination when the employer terminates the employee for a fabricated reason;
- Violation of Public Policy: If an employer terminates an employee because they belong to a recognized group or political party, it is wrongful termination; and
- Family or Medical Leave: Employees needing to take time off for extended medical leave, such as caring for sick loved ones or taking maternal/paternal leave, are protected under the FMLA. This states that they are entitled to unpaid leave, and are to have their job to return to. If an employer terminates an employee because they need to take time off for medical reasons, it could be considered wrongful termination.
If you have faced wrongful termination, your first step should be to contact your employer’s human resources department. It is important to note that you will typically need to exhaust all available administrative remedies before moving on with any legal action. If the human resources department is unable to resolve your issues, you may then contact the EEOC and file a claim against your employer. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission combats workplace discrimination and may conduct an investigation in order to issue a remedy.
Before filing a complaint with the EEOC, you should gather as much information as possible. This could include documents, hiring and firing forms, pay stubs, written witness statements, and anything else you believe will support your claims. If the EEOC does not remedy the situation, you may file a civil lawsuit. A successful lawsuit could result in the following equitable remedies:
- Reinstatement to your position if you would like to return;
- Injunction against the employer to prevent them from taking action;
- Compensation for any loss of pay or benefits;
- A “make whole” solution, which could be transferring or promoting the employee, increasing the employee’s wage, or clearing the employee’s personnel file of any wrongs; or
- Compensation for any out of pocket expenses related to searching for a new job, or directly caused by the unfair termination.
When involved with workplace disputes, you should first consult your employee handbook. Employee handbooks exist to provide instructions on the company’s policies and procedures, and they apply to various work-related topics and disputes. Once you’ve done so, you should get everything about the situation in writing before approaching your employer with the dispute. It is important that you be clear about your issue and state the facts.
Communicating with your employer regarding the dispute may produce a better result if you are prepared with a possible solution or outcome in mind, such as moving departments or changing shifts. If possible, you may reach an agreeable resolution to the dispute before the conversation concludes. However, if you and your employer are unable to reach a resolution, you may want to contact an attorney.
Workplace disputes related to wage and overtime complaints may require filing a claim with the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the U.S. Department of Labor. Disputes related to discrimination may require filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
If you are on the receiving end of disciplinary action and feel that it is incorrect, you should challenge the action against you in a professional manner. Upon receiving something like a write-up, you immediately inform your employer that you disagree with its contents while remaining calm and stating the facts. Doing so could resolve the issue then and there, without needing to take further legal action.
Another option is to inform your employer that you will be submitting a rebuttal as soon as you are able. In the rebuttal, you should address all issues and accusations and provide evidence to support your claims. If you are required to sign the write-up in order to avoid further disciplinary actions, do so while noting that your signature does not indicate agreement.
Disciplinary policies should follow specific guidelines in order to ensure fairness and respect. An employer’s disciplinary policy should be attached to a clear Code of Conduct. It should both be written down and displayed in a location where all employees will easily see it. New employees should be presented with the workplace rules and disciplinary policies, and should be made aware of any penalties imposed for code of conduct violations.
It is important that the policy not be written as a contract. Also, there should be an appeals process in place for employees to have an opportunity to explain their conduct leading up to the violation.
As can be seen, it is often difficult to navigate workplace disputes and wrongful termination, as state laws vary on the subjects. Additionally, in most cases, the employer has the advantage. Thus, if you are involved in a workplace dispute, or have been wrongfully terminated, you should consult with a well qualified and knowledgeable employment attorney.
An experienced employment law attorney can explain your rights, as well as advise you of your best course of legal action. Additionally, they can help you file a civil suit if needed, and represent you in court as necessary.