Just because your employer tells you that you are fired, it does not always mean that your employer gets to have the last word. At-will employment relationships are meant to be easy come, easy go in order to encourage hiring and fair competition within the labor market, so most of the time, it is perfectly legal for your employer to fire you arbitrarily. As with so many other employment laws, employers sometimes abuse the right to fire employees for almost any reason or for no reason at all; specifically, employers might use at-will employment as a front for firing an employee for legally protected reasons. The law indicates certain actions and characteristics which your employer cannot legally use as a basis for terminating your employment.
Most wrongful termination claims fall under the category of discrimination or retaliation. In the former case, the employer fired the employee simply for being who he or she is and not because the employee did anything wrong at work. In the latter case, the employer fired the employee for telling the truth or standing up for themselves even though it got the employer in trouble or exposed the employer to financial losses. The Spokane wrongful termination lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP if your employer fired you for an illegitimate reason or if you think your employer is not being straightforward with you about their reasons for terminating your employment.
How Does At-Will Employment Work in Washington State?
Most states in the United States, including Washington, follow the policy of at-will employment. This means that, unless the employer and the employee have signed a contract where they agree that the employment relationship will continue to a certain date, either party is free to terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason except those prohibited by law. As an employee, you have the right to quit your job whenever you choose to do so. You do not even have to give your employer two weeks’ notice before your last day; most employees do this just as a matter of etiquette to give the employer time to search for a replacement for the employee who is quitting.
Likewise, employers have the right to fire employees for any reason or even for no reason at all, but most of the time, an employer-initiated termination of employment follows one of two patterns. In the first category, the employer fires the employee because of the employee’s misconduct or poor job performance. In some cases, the misconduct is so egregious that it is obvious that termination of employment is a reasonable course of action, such as if the employee assaults a coworker during his or her shift or pockets the entire contents of the cash register instead of depositing it in the bank or locking it in a safe in the workplace. In the case of poor job performance, the employer often gives the employee several warnings and chances to improve. The employee handbook might also indicate how poor or how consistently poor an employee’s performance should be to warrant termination of employment.
Wrongful Termination and Other Adverse Actions in the Context of Employment Law
In the context of employment law, termination of employment is called an adverse action. Other examples of adverse actions include negative performance reviews, denial of promotions or raises, and demotions. Harassment, also known as a hostile work environment, also counts as an adverse action. With the exception of a hostile work environment, it is appropriate and consistent with professional standards for employers to take adverse actions against employees as a response to misconduct or negligence in their job duties. For example, if a school bus driver got a traffic citation for reckless driving because he drove 30 miles per hour above the speed limit while students were on his bus, termination of employment would be appropriate.
Employment discrimination occurs when an employer takes adverse action against an employee because of a protected characteristic of the employee. Examples of protected characteristics include race, gender, age, religion, disability, and national origin, among other characteristics related to the employee’s body or personal background. Employer retaliation occurs when the adverse action is a response to the employee’s exercise of a legally protected activity. Examples of protected activities include filing workers’ compensation claims, taking family leave or medical leave, requesting accommodations for a disability, or reporting the employer’s misconduct to regulatory agencies or law enforcement. If your employer fired you because of a protected characteristic such as your race or gender or because you engaged in a protected activity, it is a case of wrongful termination of employment, and you have the right to file a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Is it a Corporate Restructuring With a Generous Severance Package, or is it Wrongful Termination of Employment?
In almost every case where an employee alleges that the employer’s reasons for firing the employee were discriminatory, the employer comes up with some excuse to explain that the decision to terminate the employment relationship had nothing to do with a protected characteristic of the employee. In some cases, the employer might argue that they did not fire the employee at all.
When an employer terminates an employment relationship with a highly skilled and highly compensated employee, the employer might offer a separation agreement that provides for severance pay. The ostensible purpose of a separation agreement is to certify that the employee is not being fired for misconduct, but rather that the employer must terminate the employment relationship because of the employer’s own circumstances, such as financial hardships or a corporate merger. When you sign a separation agreement and accept the severance package, however, you are giving up the right to file a wrongful termination claim against your employer. You should consult an employment lawyer before agreeing to sign a separation agreement.
Contact HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP About Wrongful Termination of Employment
The Spokane employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP can help you file a wrongful termination claim against your former employer. Contact the employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP in Spokane, Washington, to set up a consultation.