When an individual is terminated from his or her position on upsetting terms, there is a tendency to feel that there must be some sort of legal recourse to punish the employer. In some cases, there surely is, but in many cases, there is not. Knowing how to determine when there may be recourse is important.
The general rule in almost every state is that the employment relationship is at-will. Just as employees have the ability to leave their position at any time for any reason, employers have the ability to terminate employees at any time for any reason or for no reason. There are important exceptions to the rule, though, and employees should be aware of them so that they know how to protect their rights.
One important exception to the at-will employment rule is when there is an agreement between the employee and the employer which modifies the rule. Such modification is common among high-level employees such as CEO's and other business executives. Agreements can vary with respect to exact terms, so it is important for employees who have contractual agreements regarding job-protection to understand their agreement and work with an experienced advocate to enforce it when necessary.
Some very important exceptions to the at-will rule are laid out in federal and state statutes. Illegal discrimination is one such exception, and is dealt with at both the state and federal level. Such statutes prohibit employers from terminating employees based on membership in protected classes. Another important statutory exception to at-will employment is retaliatory termination. In our next post, we’ll say more about this issue and continue our discussion of at-will employment exceptions.