Q: I worked in a company for over 10 years. A new supervisor and I do not get along. Last week, the company let me go without any explanation. I don't have any disciplinary record. Can the company just fire me without a good reason?
A: Yes, an employer may fire an employee without a good reason. Employment in California is considered to be “at-will.” The employment-at-will doctrine states that either the employer or the employee may end the employment relationship at any time. Therefore, an employee can quit his or her job for any reason at any time. Likewise, the employer may terminate the employment at any time, even if the employee's job performance has been excellent. The employer may also terminate employees for unfair reasons such as nepotism or favoritism. The employer may even terminate the employee for no reason at all.
However, there are limitations to an employer's freedom to terminate employees at will. One of these limitations may arise when the employee has a contract with the employer who agrees that the employee can only be fired for “good cause” or “just cause.” This may be true, for example, in the collective bargaining agreement of employees who are union members.
A second, and more important, limitation is that an employer may not terminate employees for an illegal reason. An illegal “reason” behind the termination will render the termination “wrongful” or “unlawful.”
A termination is illegal or “wrongful” if it is based on discriminatory intent or is a violation of public policy. Discriminatory intent pertains to discrimination based on such protected characteristics as age, race, sex, color, religion, national origin, disability, medical condition, pregnancy, and even union affiliation.
A termination is also illegal if it violates public policy. This means that the termination is likely illegal if the employee was fired because:
- The employee refused to violate a statute (e.g., the employee refused to commit an illegal act)
- The employee performed a statutory obligation (e.g., the employee was absent in order to serve on a jury)
- The employee exercised a statutory right or privilege (e.g., the employee declined to take a polygraph examination)
- The employee reported a statutory violation for the public's benefit (e.g., the employee reported the employer's illegal activities to a government or law enforcement agency – this is also known as “whistleblowing”)
A termination may also be wrongful if the employer was retaliating against the employee for registering internal complaints regarding the safety of the employer's products or for refusing to engage in nonconsensual sexual acts. Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who opposed unlawful practices, filed complaints, testified, assisted, or participated in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing conducted by a government agency.
Terminations can be difficult situations, particularly where employees see the employer as unfair. Unfortunately, an employer's unfair conduct may not necessarily be illegal. But if there is a discriminatory or retaliatory motive behind the firing, the employee should consult with an experienced employment attorney to determine available remedies under the law.