Wrongful termination: what is it and what to do about it
Last updated: February 4, 2023
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Wrongful termination: what is it and what to do about it
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When you lose your job, the employer doesn’t always need to give you a reason. It’s not illegal to fire someone because they missed a shift or made an insensitive comment.

But, sometimes, people are let go for an illegal reason, and this is called wrongful termination. For example, an employer can’t discriminate in the workplace or fire you as retaliation. And they can’t break a legally-binding employment contract.

If you think you’re a victim of wrongful termination, government agencies such as the EEOC can help.

In one year, the EEOC filed 67,448 workplace discrimination charges. Victims were awarded a share of over $429 million.

Knowing whether you have a case can be confusing, but we’re here to help. In the following article, we’ll explain what wrongful termination is and what you should do if you’re impacted.

What is wrongful termination?

Employers can let employees go for almost any reason. But, there are exceptions.

An employer can't break the law, and they can't violate the employment contract terms. If either of these things happens, it's called wrongful termination.

Wrongful termination covers things like discrimination and retaliation. For example, an employer can't fire someone because of their race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, or religion.

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And, they can't let you go because you reported something illegal at work. Employers can’t make the workplace difficult so that employees quit, and they can’t fire whistleblowers.

The laws can vary depending on where you live and your job type. However, equal opportunity laws cover everyone, including temporary, part-time, and full-time employees.

If you think you’ve been unfairly targeted, you should seek legal advice from someone experienced in employment law. You could get your job back or receive compensation.

What are common reasons for wrongful termination?

There are a few illegal reasons for ending someone's employment.

What are they? Let's take a look at some of the most common reasons:

Discrimination

Employers aren’t allowed to discriminate in the workplace. There are strict anti-discrimination laws that protect the rights of workers.

Anti-discrimination laws cover a range of areas. For example, an employer can’t treat an employee differently because of their race, color, religion, or national origin.

And, a person can’t be fired because of their sex, gender identity, marital status, or sexual orientation. If a woman is pregnant, this isn't a legal reason to fire them.

If someone is over forty, they’re protected against age discrimination. People with disabilities are also covered under this law.

Here’s an example of how an employee could have their job terminated because of discrimination. If multiple team members behave the same way and only the female is let go, this could be a case of gender discrimination.

Remember, discrimination may not always be obvious and can be difficult to prove. Sometimes it could be a coincidence, and having your employment terminated could be for a valid reason.

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Breaking a contract

Some employees have an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement. Employment contracts are more common for staff with higher-paying roles such as leadership positions.

Contracts can vary between employers and are usually personalized for the position. For example, there could be an agreement that the contract will be for a minimum of one year. And, there may be a condition that the employee has to fulfill all their job duties to a high standard.

If you do have an employment contract and you've met your side of the agreement, your employer could be breaking the law by firing you.

Sometimes, there can be an additional at-will employment agreement. This agreement can override some of the conditions in the contract, and the employer will be able to end your employment for any reason as long as it’s not illegal.

If you’re not sure about your rights, it’s always best to seek legal advice.

Retaliation

Another reason for wrongful termination is retaliation. This condition covers a few different areas. For example, if you file a complaint against a manager, they’re not allowed to fire you. The complaint could be about their workplace behavior, such as bullying or sexual harassment.

If someone speaks up about the company as a whistleblower, there are laws to protect them. For example, if you blow the whistle about unpaid wages, you shouldn’t lose your job.

And you can’t be fired if you take time off for jury duty, voting, or reporting to the National Guard.

If you’ve been working at a company for more than one year, you’re entitled to unpaid leave to care for your family. Or you're allowed time off to recover from a health condition.

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What isn’t included in wrongful termination?

In most US states, you can be fired for almost any reason. Unless it’s illegal or you have a contract, the employer can let you go with a weak explanation. Or, they might not even give you a reason at all.

It costs employers time and money to find new team members, so firing someone can be the last resort.

You could lose your job because you were late for work or had too many unexplained absences. Sometimes people are fired for wearing the wrong uniform or being unproductive at work.

Some companies have strict drug policies, and if you fail a drug test, you could lose your job. And, if you take or damage company property, you could be asked to leave the workplace.

These are all common reasons why people get fired. None of them are classified as wrongful termination.

What is the EEOC?

EEOC stands for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC makes sure US anti-discrimination laws are followed. Employers can't treat people differently because of their race, color, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, pregnancy status, or national origin.

The law protects employees against wrongful termination. And it also covers the hiring process, promotions, fair wages, and training opportunities.

If a company has fifteen or more employees, they're subject to EEOC laws.

Whenever there are discrimination allegations against an employer, the EEOC will start an investigation. Once this process is complete, they'll use the information to decide whether the employer did the wrong thing.

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They'll try to settle the case, or they might file a lawsuit if they can't find a resolution. However, legal action is a last resort, and only a small number of discrimination cases end up in court.

For more information, you can visit the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website.

What to do if you think your employment has been wrongfully terminated

Almost every state has at-will employment. This means your working arrangement is voluntary. Employers can let you go for almost any reason. And, you can quit your job without notice — for any reason.

By now, you'll know there are a few rules employers can't break.

Here's a list of seven things you can do if you think you're the victim of an unjust dismissal:

1. Make sure you have a case

Getting fired is never a good experience. It can be unexpected, and it’s normal to feel emotional.

Remember, employers can end your employment without reason. The only exception is when it’s illegal. So, the first step is knowing that you’ve got a case.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have an employment contract, and did you meet the conditions?

  • Did you speak up about something in the workplace?

  • Did you report your manager for sexual harassment or bullying?

  • Were you treated differently from your coworkers?

  • Do you feel you were discriminated against?

  • Were you performing all of your job duties to a high standard?

  • Have you received any warnings for your behavior at work?

If you genuinely think you have a case for wrongful termination, you can move on to the next step.

2. Speak to Human Resources

When your employment is terminated, you may have an exit interview with a Human Resources (HR) representative. You may also receive an official termination letter.

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During this interview, you can discuss any benefits and unused paid time off (PTO).

The Human Resources department can give you more insight into why you were let go. If you feel like you have a valid reason for wrongful termination, you can discuss this with the HR representative.

Even though the situation can be stressful, try to be calm. If you have any evidence of wrongdoing, you can make a copy for the HR representative.

3. Access your personnel file

You can ask the HR representative for your personnel file. The file will show your work history and any incidents you’ve had at work.

Depending on what’s in your file, it could help support your claim. For example, if you have a spotless record and numerous “employee of the month” awards, it could work in your favor if you’re accusing the employer of discrimination.

But, if you’ve had warnings or others have flagged your behavior, the reason for your dismissal could be valid. For example, you could have a history of missing shifts, taking extended breaks, or breaking a company policy.

Every situation is different, and your case may not be straightforward. The type of claim can depend on why your employment was wrongfully terminated. For example, was it a contractual breach, discriminatory reasons, or retaliation for speaking up?

If you think it was an unlawful action, you may want to take it further. You can seek legal advice from an employment law attorney. They’ll be able to give you personalized advice based on your unique circumstances.

Or, you can access free resources from the US government, your state government, or the EEOC.

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5. Decide what outcome you want

If you want to take things further, think about the outcome you want. Is your goal to get your job back, or are you seeking monetary damages?

Or do you want to stop the employer from doing the same thing to somebody else? For example, if you were fired because of your sexual orientation, your motivation could be changing the culture in the workplace.

The outcome you want could even be a mix of these three things. When you know what you want, it'll make it easier to state your case.

6. File a complaint

When you’re ready, you can file a complaint with the EEOC or another government agency. They’ll investigate your wrongful termination claim and decide whether to take it any further.

During this process, you may need to give evidence. You may already have access to your personnel file, which can help to show your character. Some of the evidence may be circumstantial, so it’ll be hard to prove.

There could be other employees who can back up your statements. For example, has anyone else been fired recently for a similar reason? Has anyone witnessed or experienced discrimination at work? Or, can anyone vouch for your job performance?

If you think you were fired as retaliation, you could have evidence of a complaint you made or documents related to other legal proceedings.

7. File a lawsuit

The EEOC may think there's enough evidence to file a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Or, if they're not prepared to take it on, you can work with your employment attorney. Make sure you have enough evidence and a genuine case. Going to court takes time and money, so you should be prepared.

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Is it hard to prove wrongful termination?

Proving a wrongful discharge claim isn't always easy, but it's not impossible. You'll need to get as much information as possible to help prove your case.

We've already discussed your personnel file, and this can be included as evidence. You could also have an employee handbook and a letter of termination.

If you've had any written communication with your employer, such as emails or text messages, these could be relevant.

Write down as much information as possible. Proving wrongful termination could come down to what you remember, so it’ll be fresh in your mind if you write it down early.

Will the employer have to pay damages?

If you're suing your employer for wrongful dismissal, you could be rewarded with monetary compensation.

First, you'll need to prove your wrongful termination claim and show a judge that the employer is guilty of illegal activity. For example, are they guilty of breach of contract or workplace discrimination?

The employer may be ordered to reimburse you for lost wages and your attorney fees and court costs. There may be additional costs such as emotional distress damages and punitive damages.

Punitive damages are awarded if the judge thinks the employer needs further punishment. This option isn’t always available.

How long do you have to make a complaint?

If you believe your employment has been wrongfully terminated due to discrimination, you’ll need to contact the EEOC. You’ll have 180 days from your termination date to file the initial complaint.

Once the complaint has been filed and they approve your case, you’ll have 90 days to start a lawsuit. It can take up to a year to get a resolution.

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If the employer has breached a written contract, you’ll have four years to file your claim.

Laws can vary between states, so it’s important to check with your local government before proceeding.

When you’ve lost your job, it makes sense that you’ll be looking to get hired somewhere else.

During the job interview, the hiring manager may ask you why you left your previous position. It’s important to be brief but honest.

You don’t need to go tell them about a pending lawsuit. And, you should always try to be positive. For example, you shouldn’t badmouth your employer. Instead, focus on the skills you gained and your relationships with your coworkers.

Remember, it’s not uncommon for people to get fired for a range of different reasons. Whether you were wrongfully terminated or let go for a minor reason, it shouldn’t impact your future job prospects.

Jobcase has an active community, and you can lean on our members for support. View discussions about termination here.

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Who can you speak to if you need advice?

If you need advice, there's help available. Your state labor office will be able to give you assistance with the laws in your local area.

And you can contact the EEOC for information or to file a claim.

If you think you’ve been wrongfully terminated, you can find helpful resources on the Labor Laws and Issues page from the US government.

Getting through wrongful termination

When you’re fired for an illegal reason, it’s called wrongful termination. Reasons for wrongful termination include discrimination, breaking an employment contract, and retaliation.

What should you do if you are a victim of wrongful termination? First, you should make sure you have a case. Next, you can speak to human resources and access your personnel file.

You can discuss your situation with the EEOC or an experienced employment lawyer. They’ll help you decide what outcome to go for and whether legal action is the right move for you.

If you’ve lost your job, you may be ready to move on. You can start looking for a new position on our job board. And, if you want more career advice, you can visit our resource center.

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