Managing a workforce is rarely an easy or straightforward task. This ordinarily complex undertaking often becomes more challenging when a worker needs to be fired, laid off or otherwise discharged. Even at-will employees cannot be terminated for any reason. There are legal restrictions that employees must honor when discharging workers.
Essentially, even at-will employees can’t be discharged for reasons that are unlawfully discriminatory, retaliatory or are rooted in harassment. Additionally, employers may be held liable if workers feel compelled to quit because of a hostile work environment. Employers may be on the hook for either creating a hostile work environment or for failing to adequately address those that develop on their watch.
Unlawful termination scenarios
Retaliation: Employers cannot initiate adverse action against an employee for engaging in a legally-protected right. From taking a protected leave of absence to complaining about discriminatory treatment, workers can’t be penalized for exercising their rights under the law.
Hostile Work Environment: If a reasonable person could perceive a protected person’s work environment as hostile, abusive or intimidating, a hostile work environment scenario has arisen. If employers either create such conditions or fail to respond to them adequately and a worker quits, they may be held accountable for constructive discharge.
Discrimination: Federal and state laws safeguard workers from unlawfully discriminatory treatment based on immutable characteristics. Common discrimination-based wrongful termination lawsuit concern mistreatment based on someone’s age over 40, color, disability, genetic information, pregnancy, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation.
By understanding your company’s rights and responsibilities under the law, you can make more informed decisions concerning the termination and discharge of your employees. Rightfully discharging a worker for legitimate reasons is generally lawful. You’ll just want to make sure that there are no unlawful influences at play before calling affected workers in to “have a discussion” with your Human Resources Department.