If you’re an employee in the United States, no matter whether you’re full-time, part-time, freelance, exempt, nonexempt and what have you, in most cases, you’re probably working at will. That means your employer can fire you at any time with or without cause. In turn, you can also quit at any time and for any reason. (Of course, it’s polite to provide some notice — usually two weeks — in either case, although some circumstances may make it difficult or impossible to do so.)
However, it is a bit misleading when we say you can be fired for any reason. That’s not quite true. In fact, there actually are some illegal reasons to fire someone. While people in these circumstances can be fired because of other circumstances, they can’t be fired for because of these reasons. Let’s take a closer look at some of the illegal justifications for firing an employee.
Keep in mind that this list does not include every single illegal reason for firing someone. In addition to federal laws, there are many inidividual state laws pertaining to employment and wrongful termination. Below are some of the most common ones.
Discrimination is an umbrella label for many inappropriate and illegal reasons for firing an employee. For example, you can’t do so because of their:
Sexual orientation (state by state)
...and so on.
Most of these categorizations are considered protected, and you could face hefty legal action, including a wrongful termination lawsuit, if you violate a discrimination law.
Remember: it’s not considered discrimination if you fire someone who is part of a protected class; you just can’t fire someone because of it. So, if an individual of a minority ethnicity is doing a poor job, that’s certainly a solid reason to fire him or her. But if she believes her ethnicity was a factor in your decision, you could be in trouble.
Firing someone because she’s pregnant or has a medical issue related to her pregnancy falls under discrimination, but it’s unique in that she’s also specifically protected by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Moreover, you must make reasonable accommodations if she needs them during her pregnancy. If she meets certain qualifications, such as having worked for the employer for at least 12 months, she’s also entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Like pregnancy, firing someone because of her disability also falls under the umbrella of discrimination, but also like pregnancy, there’s a specific law prohibiting this behavior: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the ADA, employers may not make any employment decisions, including hiring and firing, because of a physical or mental disability or impairment, assuming it doesn’t impact or limit their ability to do the job at hand.
The ADA applies to employers who had at least 15 employees. It also stipulates that employers must provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. This might mean, for example, bringing a support animal to work, provided that the facility doesn’t pose a safety hazard to animals or the use of the animal doesn't put others' safety at risk.
An employee who files a formal or informal complaint against her employer cannot be fired for doing so. For instance, if an employee makes a claim of sexual harrassment against her manager, the employer cannot retaliate by firing her. Likewise, it is illegal to fire an employee who asserts any type of right or complaint.
According the the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), for the most part, employers are not allowed to fire workers who are legally eligible to work in the U.S. It is illegal to terminate the employee because of his or her alien status.
If your employer asks you to submit to a lie detector test and you don’t wish to comply for whatever reason, you may not be fired for this reason. Most employers may not terminate employees because of their refusal to taking a lie detector test. This is stipulated by the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, a federal law. (Some states have additional laws to this effect.)
Similar to the retaliation law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) stipulates that it is illegal to fire employees who file complaints that work facilities and/or conditions don’t meet federal health and safety laws. Employees must be free to report violations of these standards without fear of retribution. The law is in place to protect whistleblowers.
These are the main federal laws concerning the illegalities of firing certain employees. In addition, many states have individual laws regarding wrongful termination. Check with your state’s Bureau of Labor if you suspect your employee has fired you illegally. There, you’ll find in-depth descriptions of violations, resources and more and gain a better understanding as to whether your specific case qualifies as wrongful termination. You can also find information about next steps.
*Disclaimer: The information above has been thoroughly researched. However, due to the complex and ever-evolving nature of the legal field and employment laws, we cannot guarantee that it is up-to-date. Note that it has not been vetted by an attorney, nor does it apply to a global audience. Please use this guide for insights and information only, not a basis on which to build a legal case. For more information pertaining to your specific case, state or country, we suggest consulting an attorney or visiting your state or country’s government website and resources. Also, keep in mind that every case is unique, so it’s best to seek the guidance of a legal expert who can respond to your particular situation.