Getting let go from your job at any point is almost always a frustrating experience. You may not understand why you were terminated, or you may have a sneaking suspicion that your employer’s motive for firing you was due to specific (and illegal) reasons. Here is what employees need to know about wrongful termination, but caution that the law is different state to state.
Common misconceptions surrounding at-will employment
In an at-will employment situation, an employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason or no reason at all, except for an illegal reason. This is an important distinction, as many confuse being fired without cause for an illegal or wrongful termination. And an employee may be eligible for unemployment compensation, but not have a viable wrongful discharge claim. Because most people in Wisconsin and across the U.S. are employed at will, it is critical to first understand whether you were an at-will employee.
When your termination may have been illegal
There are several distinct situations in which your firing may have been illegal, even if you were an at-will employee. These circumstances include:
- Due to discrimination. Employers are prohibited from firing employees due to discriminatory reasons against protected classes. These protected classes include age, race, gender, disability, pregnancy, national origin, religion, sexual preference, use of lawful product, and skin color. In such cases, retaining clear documentation of your employer’s bias toward you (over time, if possible) can be critical in taking legal action against your firing.
- Due to reporting safety issues. Reporting critical safety issues in the workplace should be in everyone’s best interests, but too often can lead to the employee in question being singled out. If you report safety issues in the workplace, be sure to document the conditions or policies in place that led to your concerns, as well as the measures you took to report the issues and any pushback or retaliation after the fact. And calling an attorney in advance can be crucial. For example, you may need to contact OSHA and let your employer know in order to be protected.
- Due to voicing other concerns. Bringing up other concerns, such as asking for a raise, may also lead to retaliation or even termination. However, asking for a raise when done properly is considered a “concerted activity” and provides protection against retaliation. Although it may be daunting, employees should be able to ask about a raise or voice other concerns in the workplace without fear of termination, but it must be done correctly and potentially affect others as well as yourself. Understanding how to bring up such concerns beforehand is critical.
- Due to retaliation. Lastly, retaliatory firing is illegal if it is done in retaliation for protected reporting of safety or engaging in protected concerted activities and employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees following EEOC or OSHA complaints, workers’ compensation claims, certain whistleblower actions, and other similar legal actions or complaints.
These are only a few scenarios to consider and not an exhaustive list of every illegal reason an employer may use to fire you, under the guise of at-will employment or another reason.
Can you take legal action?
If you are unsure whether you were wrongfully terminated, getting in touch with a seasoned employment law attorney should be your next step. An attorney can help you understand your options, even after getting fired. However, calling before termination is helpful and can sometimes make the difference in whether a case is viable.