When most people think about a contract, they think of a formal written document. And many contracts do look that way. There are other kinds of contracts, however. You and your employer can come to an oral agreement that is never put in writing, and it may still be a valid, enforceable employment contract. And, if your employer has ever promised you something, that may have created a contract as well.
If you fit into the following situations and are fired for questionable reasons, then you might consider talking to an attorney:
For more information on employment contracts, see Nolo's article Employment at Will: What Does It Mean?
Employers do not have the right to discriminate against you in violation of state or federal fair employment laws -- and this applies to firing. Such laws protect against discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, religion, disability, and age. In addition, some states also protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, marital status, gender identity, whether a person receives public funds, and/or other characteristics. Such state and federal laws also protect you from being fired in retaliation for making a complaint of discrimination or assisting in someone else's complaint of discrimination on any of these bases. For more information, see Your Rights Against Discrimination and Harassment.
Other state and federal laws also protect workers from being fired for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, the following:
For more information on illegal reasons for firing, see Nolo's article Wrongful Termination: Was Your Firing Illegal? If you believe you may have been fired for an illegal reason, contact your state department of labor and/or fair employment agency for more information.
Even if you decide not to challenge the legality of your firing, you will be in a much better position to enforce all your workplace rights if you carefully document what happened when you were fired. For example, if you apply for unemployment insurance benefits and your former employer challenges your unemployment application, you will typically need to prove that you were dismissed for reasons that were not related to your own misconduct. (For more information, see Nolo's article Unemployment Benefits: What If You're Fired?)
First, ask to see your personnel file. In many states, employers are required to make it available to you. Make a copy of all reports and reviews in it. Again, some states require the employer to allow you to make copies. Make a list of every single document the file contains. That way, if your employer adds anything later, you will have proof that it was created after the events in question. (For tips on checking your file, see Your Personnel File and Your Rights.)
There are a number of ways to document events that happened. The easiest is to keep a journal in which you record and date significant work-related events such as performance reviews, commendations or reprimands, salary increases or decreases, and even informal comments your supervisor makes to you about your work. Note the date, time, and location for each event; which members of management were involved; and any witnesses who were present. Keep your notes at home or in a secure place.
Whenever possible, back up the notes in your journal with materials issued by your employer -- such as copies of the employee handbook; memos; brochures; employee orientation videos; and any written evaluations, commendations, or criticisms of your work. However, don't take or copy any documents that your employer considers confidential -- this will come back to haunt you if you decide to file a lawsuit. For information on documenting your situation, see Nolo's article Wrongful Termination: Gathering Documentation.
No, but this is a common misconception. The First Amendment, like the rest of the Constitution, protects all of us from government infringement on our rights; it doesn't apply to private companies. Some other laws may protect you from being fired for blogging, such as state laws that prohibit employers from discriminating based on an employee's political views or taking action against an employee based on legal, off-duty conduct. For more information, see Nolo's article Fired for Blogging.
It depends. If you are already legally entitled to severance (for example, because it was promised in your employment contract or employee handbook), then your employer may not force you to sign a release to get it. However, if you aren't already legally entitled to severance, or if your employer is offering you additional benefits for signing a release, that may be perfectly legal. A release requires you to give up your right to sue your employer. Before you sign one, you should understand exactly what rights you are giving up and what you are getting in return. For more information, see Nolo's article Should You Sign a Release When You Lose Your Job?
Employers are legally required to give employees notice if the layoff will involve a large number of employees or the closing of a plant. The federal WARN Act requires employers with at least 100 employees to give 60 days' notice before a plant closing or mass layoff. If the employer doesn't give the required notice, and doesn't fit into an exception to the law's requirements, employees may be entitled to pay in lieu of notice. See Nolo's article Layoffs and Plant Closings: Know Your Rights for more information.
You have a number of legal rights when you are fired, including the right to all compensation you've already earned (in some states, this includes vacation time you've accrued but not yet used), the right to continue your health insurance coverage, the right to any severance to which you are entitled, and the right to collect unemployment benefits, if you qualify. For information on these rights, see Nolo's article Your Rights When You Leave a Job. For information on state laws governing when you must receive your final paycheck, see Nolo's Chart: Final Paychecks for Departing Employees.
Unless you have an employment contract with your employer, your employment is probably "at will," which means that your employer can fire you for any reason that isn't illegal. (Illegal reasons include discrimination based on race, sex, or another protected characteristic; retaliation for asserting your workplace rights; or punishing you for whistleblowing.) For more information on at-will employment, see Nolo's article Employment at Will: What Does It Mean?
Your employer's reason for firing you can be related to your job (for example, poor performance, excessive absences, or violating a company rule) or totally unrelated (for example, violating a law outside of work, speaking too loudly or abrasively, annoying your coworkers, or any other reason that is not illegal).
If you have an employment contract, however, the terms of your contract will determine the reasons for which you can be fired. Some contracts give a list of things for which the employee can be fired; others leave the issue open. In such a situation, the law usually says that you can only be fired for "good cause," which means a legitimate, business-related reason. If your contract says specifically that your employment is at will, however, you are stuck in the same boat as those without a contract, and your employer has a great deal of leeway when deciding whether to fire you.