All Articles
How to Define Wrongful Termination

How to Define Wrongful Termination

Written by

Alexandre Diard Alexandre Diard

We get it, you’re here to ensure that your company practices comply with existing employment laws. As a responsible HR leader, you want to prevent potential lawsuits and maintain a fair and respectful workplace environment. Additionally, having a clear understanding of what constitutes wrongful termination enables HR to provide accurate guidance to managers and supervisors, and to handle employee separations correctly and ethically.

Here we address what qualifies as wrongful termination and answer some common questions about the topic.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to provide general information and understanding about this subject matter. This is not intended to be used as legal advice, nor does it cover all aspects of the topic. Always consult with a professional or legal advisor to understand your specific circumstance and responsibilities.

Related articles:
Fire an Employee the Right Way
Employee Offboarding Checklist for a Happy Company

Why wait to customize your HR ecosystem?

There’s no better time to explore the PeopleSpheres platform. Zero obligations.

Free trial

PeopleSpheres features

Definition of Wrongful Termination

Wrongful termination refers to a situation where an employee’s contract of employment is ended by the employer in a manner that breaches one or more terms of the contract of employment, or a statute in employment law.

It is characterized by a dismissal that violates legal protections afforded to employees, which may include instances of discrimination, retaliation, refusal to commit an illegal act, or dismissal that contravenes the terms of the employment agreement. It’s important to note that laws regarding wrongful termination can vary widely based on jurisdiction, so it’s always wise to consult with a legal expert when such situations arise.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Wrongful Termination

What are the common grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit?

Common grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit can include, but are not limited to:

  • Discrimination: If an employee is terminated on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, pregnancy, religion, age, disability, or sexual orientation, they may have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. These are protected classes under federal law.
  • Retaliation: If an employee is fired for asserting their rights under employment laws, such as filing a harassment complaint or a workers’ compensation claim, it may be considered retaliation, which is illegal.
  • Breach of Contract: If the employer fails to follow the termination procedures as stated in the employment contract or if termination goes against any written or implied promises made to the employee, this can be considered a breach of contract.
  • Public Policy Violation: If an employee is fired for reasons that society recognizes as illegitimate grounds for termination, like serving jury duty or reporting illegal activities (whistleblowing), the termination might violate public policy.
  • Constructive Discharge: If an employer makes work conditions so intolerable (through harassment, discrimination, or retaliation) that the employee has no choice but to resign, they may have grounds for a constructive discharge lawsuit.

Remember, this is not an exhaustive list and laws may vary by state and country. It is always important for both employers and employees to consult with legal counsel when dealing with potential cases of wrongful termination.

What constitutes as discrimination in the context of wrongful termination?

Discrimination, in the context of wrongful termination, refers to any adverse action or unfair treatment taken by an employer against an employee on the basis of their membership in a protected class as stipulated by law. It may manifest in various forms such as race, gender, age, religion, disability, or sexual orientation, among others.

For instance, if an employee is fired because of their religious beliefs or because they’ve become pregnant, it would constitute discriminatory termination. It’s important to note that employment laws can be complex and differ from region to region, hence individuals are strongly encouraged to seek legal counsel when they feel they have been wrongfully terminated due to discrimination.

Can an at-will employee still file a wrongful termination claim?

Yes, an at-will employee can still file a wrongful termination claim. Even though “at-will” employment means that either the employer or the employee can end the employment relationship at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all, there are exceptions.

These exceptions are guided by the federal and state laws which protect employees from unlawful termination. Thus, if an employer terminates an at-will employee for reasons that are discriminatory, retaliatory, or in violation of public policy, the employee might have a valid wrongful termination claim.

What are the remedies available for victims of wrongful termination?

Victims of wrongful termination may seek several types of remedies under the law. Firstly, reinstatement is one common remedy, where the employee is given their old job back. Secondly, back pay may be awarded, which means compensating the employee for wages lost from the time of wrongful termination to the point of a verdict.

Additionally, front pay may be provided to compensate for wages that would have been earned in the future had the employee not been wrongfully terminated. These remedies aim to restore the employee to the financial position they would have been in had the wrongful termination not occurred.

Other remedies might include punitive damages if the employer’s conduct was especially egregious, and compensation for emotional distress.

What steps can an employee take if they believe to have been wrongfully terminated?

If an employee believes that they have been wrongfully terminated, there are several steps that they can take. Firstly, they should collect and secure any evidence related to their termination. This could include emails, witness testimonies, or any documents that might demonstrate an unlawful motive for the termination.

Secondly, the employee should consult with an employment attorney or legal advisor. They can help the employee understand their rights and potential remedies, and assess the strength of their case.

Thirdly, the employee can file a complaint with the relevant state or federal employment agency, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the United States. These agencies can conduct an investigation and may mediate a resolution between the employer and employee.

Lastly, if the agency does not resolve the matter, the employee has the option to proceed with a lawsuit against the employer for wrongful termination.

What evidence does an employer need in a wrongful termination case?

In a wrongful termination case, sufficient and concrete evidence plays a crucial role for the employer. The most effective forms of evidence tend to be documentation related to the employee’s performance, behavior, or violations of company policy. This may include performance reviews, written warnings, emails, or any other documentation that illustrates the employee’s misconduct or performance issues.

Additionally, records of any disciplinary action taken, and the company’s policies or employee handbook can be valuable evidence. Testimonies from supervisors or other employees can also provide useful insights into the employee’s conduct at work. It is essential to note that all evidence should be honest, factual, and unbiased to uphold the integrity of the case.

How long does an employee have to file a wrongful termination claim?

The timeline for filing a wrongful termination claim varies depending on jurisdiction and the specific nature of the claim. Generally, in the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires that a claim be filed within 180 days from the date of termination. However, this period may be extended to 300 days if the claim also falls under state or local discrimination laws.

For wrongful termination claims that are not based on discrimination, different timelines may apply. It’s crucial for employees to consult with a legal professional promptly after termination to ensure all deadlines are met. Always remember, missing a deadline can result in the loss of the right to sue.

Can an employer retaliate if an employee files a wrongful termination claim?

No, it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for filing a wrongful termination claim. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and many state laws protect employees from retaliation for asserting their rights.

Retaliation can include actions such as firing, demotion, harassment, or any other employment-related discrimination. If an employee experiences retaliation, they can file a retaliation claim, which is a separate violation and can be filed whether or not the original wrongful termination claim is successful. It is important, however, for employees to document any instances of retaliation and inform their legal advisor promptly.

How can employers avoid wrongful termination?

Employers can avoid wrongful termination by adhering strictly to employment laws and maintaining fairness and transparency in their policies. Here are a few examples:

  1. Clear Communication: Employers should ensure that employees understand their roles, responsibilities, and performance expectations right from the start of their employment. This can be achieved through detailed job descriptions, employee handbooks, and regular feedback sessions.
  2. Documented Policies and Procedures: Employers should have established policies and procedures in place that are consistently followed and documented. This should include policies on employee evaluations, disciplinary actions, and termination procedures.
  3. Procedural Justice: Employers should ensure that they have a fair process in place for handling complaints, disputes, and disciplinary actions. This might include proper investigations, allowing employees to present their side of the story, and taking consistent action.
  4. Training for Supervisors: Employers can significantly reduce the risk of wrongful termination by providing training for supervisors on how to handle employee issues legally and effectively. This could include training on how to provide constructive feedback, manage performance issues, and adhere to anti-discrimination laws.
  5. Legal Advice: It is prudent for employers to seek legal advice when contemplating terminating an employee, especially if there are potential legal complexities involved. This can help mitigate the risk of wrongful termination claims.

Why wait to customize your HR ecosystem?

There’s no better time to explore the PeopleSpheres platform. Zero obligations.

Free trial

PeopleSpheres features