Let’s imagine that an employee makes a mistake. A few days later, the employee makes the same mistake again. The supervisor calls the employee into her office and warns her that making the same mistake constantly can cause serious problems for the company. The supervisor tells the employee to double check her work before submitting it. A few weeks later, the employee makes the same mistake again. This compels the company to perform damage control and make numerous corrections. The following day, the human resource department calls the employee and informs her that her employment with the company has been terminated, effective immediately.
At Will Employment
Washington state is an “at will” employment state, which means that either the employer or employee may terminate an employment relationship at any time. This also means that an employer can terminate the employee’s employment without providing a reason. Therefore, absent an employment contract specifying terms of employment termination, the employment is at will.
There are exceptions to at will employment wherein an employer may be in the wrong for terminating an employee. Here are examples:
- Breach of contract;
Washington law makes it illegal to fire someone on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, disability, age, marital status, AIDS / HIV or sickle cell traits. Specifically, an employer may not refuse to hire or fire someone based on these traits. Similarly, an employer may not skew compensation or print materials that suggest that the employer will discriminate based on these traits.
To file a complaint, a prospective, current or former employee files a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission, or WSHRC. Once received, the WSHRC conducts an investigation into the matter. The complaint must allege a complaint that demonstrates discrimination. The employer will have the chance to explain why, from its point of view, there was no discrimination. The potential, current or former employee will then be compelled to provide additional information that shows discrimination.
Breach of Contract
Washington law allows for an employee to sign a contract with an employer with terms that are for cause. That is to say, an employee can agree with an employer that employment termination only occurs for cause. If this is the case, an employer can fire an employee only if the employer has a compelling reason. In such an instance, the employee can sue the employer for breach of contract and attain a damages award.
Washington law prohibits employers from punishing prospective and current employees for filing a complaint against the employer. If an employee files a complaint against his or her employer and the employer reacts by firing the employee, the employer committed retaliation.
There are common law protections as well. If the termination violates public policy, e.g. an employer who tells an employee to commit perjury or be fired or an employee who invokes his right to collect workers’ compensation, then the employer cannot terminate based on those events because it violates public policy.
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