Have I been wrongfully terminated? Here’s everything you need to know

While organizations go about their daily business, they generally have the latitude to hire and fire whomever they wish. But, when you’re fired from one day to the next, without warning, it can be unsettling.

No doubt, your knee-jerk reaction may be to cry foul. You should know, however, that while an involuntary termination is no one’s idea of living their best life, firings must meet certain criteria to be considered wrongful termination. 

At-will employment

With the exception of Montana, the most common form of employment in the U.S. is at-will employment. Simply stated, at-will employment means that an employee may be terminated “at the will” of the employer.

Additionally, employers do not need to have a good reason for the termination, nor does it require paper trails or any type of advanced warning. Generally speaking, employment is presumed to be at-will unless there is a contract in place that specifies terminations should be “for cause” only. 

Involuntary termination

Involuntary termination is likely to be another term that tends to get caught up in the mix and possibly misunderstood. With this type of firing, the employer decides to end the working relationship with the employee (as opposed to voluntary termination, where the employee resigns). There are two types of involuntary termination:

  • Without cause 
  • With cause

Involuntary termination without cause simply means that the employer terminates the employee for reasons that are beyond their immediate control, such as downsizing and layoffs. 

Involuntary termination with cause, however, is when the employee is fired for some specific reason, such as:

  • Tardiness
  • Attendance 
  • Poor performance
  • Violations of company policy 
  • Insubordination 
  • Incompetence

While all of the reasons above are pretty standard (and legal) reasons for firing an employee, employers must be able to prove that there were ample warnings and progressive discipline for the firing to hold up.

Wrongful termination

While employees can rightfully be fired for legal reasons (like those mentioned above), firings can be considered wrongful termination if they are done for any of the following reasons:

  • Discrimination
  • Whistleblowing
  • Breach of contract
  • Constructive discharge stemming from a toxic work environment
  • Physical violence 
  • Sexual harassment
  • Violation of public policy (i.e., firing an employee for taking maternity leave)
  • Ageism

Anti-discrimination laws

Moreover, for a firing to be considered “wrongful termination,” it must be considered illegal in the eyes of the law. Very often, that could look like violating the terms of an employment agreement or a state or federal law. For example, your employer cannot fire you for your religious beliefs or sexual orientation.

There is a federal law in place to protect you in both cases, specifically, Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Surprisingly, even with this law on the books, The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported well over 80,000 job discrimination charges in 2017 alone.

Additionally, employers cannot fire or otherwise retaliate against an employee for whistleblowing. Employees that report any type of wrongdoing, hazardous conditions, or illegal activity in the workplace are protected. Laws that protect whistleblowers include:

The Fair Labor Standards Act

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) 

The Family and Medical Leave Act

The National Labor Relations Act

What should you do if you feel you have been wrongfully terminated?

In some cases, employees can fight a wrongful termination and get their job back, receive back pay, or other compensatory damages. Bear in mind, however, that many wrongful termination cases will never see the light of day in a courtroom. That could be for any number of reasons. The case may be difficult to prove, an attorney may find that the case has no merit, or if you’re right about being wrongfully terminated, you could get lucky, and your employer may choose to settle out of court (sparing everyone, including you, a lot of time, stress and frustration). 

If you feel that you have been wrongfully terminated, you may want to start your research with the U.S Department of Labor. The DOL has plenty of resources on employment laws as well as information and important deadlines for filing a claim.

Remember that employment laws can be difficult to navigate on your own. So, gathering information and figuring out how you would like to proceed is likely just a first step.

Once you have gathered information, you may want to consult an employment attorney. Speaking with an expert can help you figure out if you even have a case, what you stand to gain (or lose) from pursuing a wrongful termination claim, and what your next steps should be. 

How to find a way forward after a termination

The thing to remember about terminations is that while being on the receiving end of one can sting a little (or a lot), many turn out to be above board and the employer is within their rights.

Following your termination, you would be best served to do some research and speak with an employment attorney if necessary. You may even figure out that your firing was just a run of the mill involuntary termination. In that case, the best course of action should be finding a way forward for yourself.

So dust off your cover letter, and polish your interviewing skills, you’ve got work to do.