Employers have the freedom to fire employees for nearly any reason in most states in the U.S. However, there are instances when employers break the law by firing workers.
The following overview explains at-will employment, grounds for termination, and what happens when an employer terminates an employee for illegal reasons. Learn more about this topic by speaking with a lawyer if you believe your employer has fired you wrongfully.
What Is At-Will Employment
Most states in the U.S. are at-will employment states. The only exception is Montana.
Some mistakenly conflate at-will employment laws with right-to-work laws. The idea that they’re the same is a misconception.
Generally, employees in right-to-work states don’t need to join labor unions if they don’t wish to. At-will employment laws pertain more to what happens when the employment relationship ends.
A worker in an at-will employment state can leave their job for any reason. However, the law also states that employers have the right to terminate employees whenever they wish without necessarily needing to give a reason.
What Are the Grounds for Termination?
“Grounds for termination” refers to the reasons employers may have for firing employees. Again, in at-will employment states, employers typically don’t need to give reasons for letting employees go.
That doesn’t mean there are no exceptions. A wrongful termination law will often take priority over an at-will employment law.
When Are Grounds for Termination Illegal?
The laws of wrongful termination vary from one state to another. An act that qualifies as wrongful termination in one state may not qualify as wrongful termination in another.
That said, wrongful firing may occur when an employer terminates an employee:
- Based on their gender, religion, age, disability, or other such protected characteristic
- Because said employee became pregnant
- Because said employee engaged in such lawful acts as reporting unsafe workplace conditions, cooperating with investigators looking into dangerous practices, etc.
Understanding wrongful termination reasons may require a degree of familiarity with relevant laws. If you’re not sure what counts as wrongful termination, consider meeting with an attorney to review your case.
What Happens If I Think I Was Fired Illegally?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that handles wrongful termination claims. The EEOC’s website has information on how to file for wrongful termination or discrimination.
Various state agencies may also serve this role. Sometimes, when you file with a relevant state agency, they will also file with the EEOC on your behalf.
The agency with whom you file a complaint will independently investigate the matter. They may take legal action against an employer if the investigation indicates the employer terminated you for illegal reasons. Or, the agency may provide you with a “right to sue” letter notifying you that you may proceed with a lawsuit against your former employer.
An Attorney May Help With a Wrongful Termination Case
At-will employment laws don’t allow employers to fire workers without any restrictions. If you think you’ve been the victim of wrongful termination, speak with a lawyer. Their expertise and understanding of reasons for wrongful termination could play a major role in your case’s outcome. Fill out the Free Case Evaluation to get connected with an independent employment law attorney who subscribes to the website and may be able to help with your case.