Losing your job can be one of the most traumatic experiences in a person’s professional life. There are times, however, when the reason for your termination is not only traumatic but, depending on the state you live in, against the law. This week, we will talk about three of the potential reasons a termination could be unlawful and lead to your reinstatement or a suit against your former employer.
In almost every U.S. state, workers are employed “at will.” This means your employer has the right to terminate your position for no reason or any reason at any time. Even if the reason was unfair or untrue, your termination would not be considered illegal. Fortunately, there are some protections for employees and, even if an employee is “at will,” he has the right not to be fired for an illegal reason.
Sometimes employers offer a written contract or statement ensuring job security, or an offer letter or document making promises that your employment will be for a certain period of time. This type of promise might also state that you can only be fired for certain reasons. If you have a written document like this from your employer, you have an excellent argument that you are not an “at will” employee, and you may be able to enforce these documents in court.
If you don’t have any written documentation backing up your claim of promises, you may still be able to show that you have an implied employee contract based on what your employer has said to you or done in the past. For example, if you have been:
- employed for a long time without incident;
- have had positive performance reviews;
- have received regular promotions;
- assured of continued employment; or
if the process that led to your termination was a violation of the usual employment practice at your workplace, you could argue that you were not subject to the at-will rule.
Implied promises can be difficult, but depending on your situation, not impossible to prove in court. Although most employers take great care in following their own rules of employment, if your employer went back on a promises such as permanent employment or failed to follow the progressive discipline rules laid out in their employee handbook, your implied contract may have been violated.
Breaches of Good Faith and Fair Dealing
It’s been seen time and time again in movies and TV: an employer threatens to send an employee to the worst location or assign her the most dangerous duty unless she toes the line. Although some states don’t recognize this exception, many courts have found that this behavior is illegal. If an employee is forced to quit because of a breach of good faith, he or she could have a case for wrongful termination. Some other examples of good faith and fair dealing breaches include:
- not mentioning dangerous aspects of a job;
- creating reasons for firing you so an employee who makes less money can be hired or to prevent you from collecting a sales commission;
- trying to get you to quit so you don’t receive severance; and
- being untruthful about your chances for promotion and wage increase.
There are a few other common protections from wrongful termination, including discrimination and retaliation, that we will discuss in the upcoming weeks!
There are resources available from your state government that can help you learn more about these topics, but because employment is a complex topic, it’s usually best to consult a lawyer for help.