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Employment relationships, in most cases, are subject to “at-will” employment laws, which means that either the employer or the employee can terminate the relationship at any time and for any reason. However, certain exceptions exist to these laws, and employers who disregard these exceptions may be guilty of wrongful termination.

Wrongful termination refers to a situation where an employer fires an employee in violation of the legal rights of the employee. Several laws protect employees from wrongful termination. Here is more on what constitutes wrongful termination and how employees can recognize it.

Violation of federal and state laws

An employer cannot terminate an employee based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age, disability or genetic information. Federal law protects these classes. Many state laws also add other classes, such as sexual orientation, marital status and military status.

Breach of contract

Employers cannot violate the terms of an employment contract when terminating an employee. If an employer does not adhere to the contract’s terms about the duration of employment, job security and termination procedures, it may constitute wrongful termination. There may be legal grounds for the employee to claim lost wages from the employer.

Retaliation

An employer cannot fire an employee out of retaliation. This can include retaliation for filing a complaint or claim against the employer, reporting illegal activities of the employer, participating in an investigation involving the employer or exercising a legal right, like voting or taking family medical leave.

Violation of public policy

Firing an employee for reasons that society recognizes as illegitimate grounds for termination is wrongful. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee for performing a civic duty such as jury service.

Constructive discharge

In some cases, an employer might not fire an employee outright, but instead might create such intolerable working conditions that the employee feels forced to quit. This scenario is constructive discharge and can qualify as wrongful termination.

Knowing what constitutes wrongful termination can help employees recognize and respond effectively if they find themselves in such a situation.