Wrongful dismissal, also called wrongful termination or unfair dismissal, refers in the U.S. to the firing of an employee for illegal reasons. Despite widespread use of the term “unfair” in these cases, an unfair dismissal claim is not substantiated by an employer simply acting unfairly; in fact, there are many conditions under which employees may be fired that are not fair — such as nepotism — that are completely legal in most cases involving private employers.
It’s very important that employees understand wrongful dismissal law so that they can navigate these sometimes confusing waters and stand behind rights for employees when they need to. With that in mind, here are five important things all workers need to understand about wrongful dismissal and wrongful dismissal lawsuits:
- “At Will” Employment Does Not Preclude Illegal Firings
At will employment, which covers the vast majority of jobs in the U.S., means that employers can terminate employees at any time without consequences. This does not, however, mean that employers can ignore workers’ protection legislation such as that prohibiting discrimination.
- Being Part of a Protected Class Is Not Enough
One of the most common reasons employees bring wrongful dismissal lawsuits is because of discrimination based on race, religion, sex, etc. However, simply belonging to one of these protected classes is not enough to substantiate a wrongful dismissal lawsuit; the employee (and whatever employment rights attorneys are involved) must demonstrate that the firing was directly in response to the employee’s status.
- Employers May Not Retaliate Through Firings
Employers are not allowed to use firing as a threat or retaliation for certain lawful actions an employee has carried out. For example, if an employee has initiated a harassment complaint, blown the whistle on labor violations or filed a workers’ comp claim, an employer cannot simply terminate that employee.
- Employees Are Not Required to Follow Illegal Directives
If an employee is fired for refusing to perform an illegal act at the behest of his or her employer and is subsequently terminated, there is likely grounds for wrongful dismissal action.
- Employment Contracts Do Grant Legal Protections
Although wrongful dismissal is most often talked about in the context of illegal firings based on federal or state workers’ protections, employer contracts and policies also hold some weight. If an employee is fired two years into a five-year contract, for example, then that employee might have grounds for legal action. Similarly, if the company has an internal policy regarding the firing process and that process is not followed, an employee may be able to challenge the firing in court.
What else should employees know about their rights regarding termination? Join the discussion in the comments.