Losing or Leaving a Job FAQ
You have certain legal rights even as your job is ending.
Unless you have an employment contract with your employer, your employment is probably "at will," which means that your employer can fire you for any reason that isn't illegal. (Illegal reasons include discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, religion, disability, and age, and, in some states, sexual orientation, marital status, whether a person receives public funds, and/or other characteristics.)
This means that your employer's reason for firing you can be related to your job (for example, poor performance, excessive absences, or violating a company rule) or totally unrelated (for example, violating a law outside of work, speaking too loudly or abrasively, annoying your coworkers, or any other reason that is not illegal).
If you have an employment contract, however, the terms of your contract will determine the reasons for which you can be fired. Sometimes, contracts will give a list of things for which the employee can be fired. Other times, contracts will leave the issue open. In such a situation, the law usually says that you can only be fired for "good cause" -- meaning a legitimate, business-related reason. If your contract says specifically that your employment is at will, however, you are stuck in the same boat as those without a contract, and your employer has a great deal of leeway in the reasons for which he or she can fire you.
When most people think about contracts, they think of a formal written document. And many contracts do look that way. There are other kinds of contracts, however. You and your employer can come to an oral agreement that is never put in writing, and it will still be a valid contract under the right circumstances. And, if your employer has ever promised you something, that may be a contract as well.
If you fit into the following situations and are fired for questionable reasons, then you might consider talking to an attorney:
- Your employer, supervisor, or manager promised you that you would only be fired for certain reasons -- for example, if you really messed up in your job or if the company failed.
- Your employer, manager, or supervisor promised you that you would have a long and secure career at the company.
- You and your employer, manager, or supervisor agreed orally on the terms or length of your employment.
Employers do not have the right to discriminate against you in violation of state or federal fair employment laws. Such laws protect against discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, religion, disability, and age. In addition, some states also protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, marital status, whether a person receives public funds, and/or other characteristics. Such state and federal laws also protect you from being fired in retaliation for making a complaint of discrimination or assisting in someone else's complaint of discrimination on any of these bases.
Other state and federal laws also protect workers from being fired for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, the following:
- forming a union or being involved in union activity
- complaining about or reporting unsafe working conditions
- reporting illegal activities in your workplace (also known as "whistleblowing")
- asserting your legal rights or engaging in legal conduct, and
- holding certain political or religious beliefs.
If you believe you may have been fired for an illegal reason, contact your state department of labor and/or fair employment agency for more information.
Even if you decide not to challenge the legality of your firing, you will be in a much better position to enforce all your workplace rights if you carefully document what happened when you were fired. For example, if you apply for unemployment insurance benefits and your former employer challenges your unemployment application, you will typically need to prove that you were dismissed for reasons that were not related to your own misconduct.
First, ask to see your personnel file. Make a copy of all reports and reviews in it. And make a list of every single document the file contains. That way, if your employer adds anything later, you will have proof that it was created after the events in question.
There are a number of ways to document events that happened. The easiest is to keep a journal in which you record and date significant work-related events such as performance reviews, commendations or reprimands, salary increases or decreases, and even informal comments your supervisor makes to you about your work. Note the date, time, and location for each event; which members of management were involved; and any witnesses who were present. Keep your notes at home or in a secure place.
Whenever possible, back up the notes in your journal with materials issued by your employer -- such as copies of the employee handbook; memos; brochures; employee orientation videos; and any written evaluations, commendations, or criticisms of your work. However, don't take or copy any documents that your employer considers confidential -- this will come back to haunt you if you decide to file a lawsuit.