Can I Be Fired From My Job For Any Reason?
Many California employers believe that they can fire an “at-will” employee for any reason. This belief is far from the truth. California employers need to be aware that there exists a plethora of exceptions to the general rule regarding “at-will” employment.
What is “at-will” employment? The term “at-will” employment generally means that an employer can terminate an employee for any reason and without notice AND an employee can terminate his/her employment for any reason and without notice. Obviously, this definition is very misleading due to the numerous exceptions that exist. In other words, employers cannot terminate employment for “any” reason.
A very highly litigated exception to “at-will” employment involves “protected” characteristics. In fact, California has protected almost twenty characteristics! Some of the more popular protected characteristics include age, sex, gender, race, national origin, disability, medical condition and religion.
In the event an employer becomes aware that an employee has a protected characteristic, the employer should be cautious about taking action against him/her. In fact, California obligates employers take certain steps to help employees with protected characteristics. For instance, employers are obligated to engage in an “interactive process” to discuss potential accommodations for a disabled employee. If that same employee also complains that he/she has experienced harassment due to his/her disability, the employer is also obligated to investigate and remedy the harassment.
Employers are sometimes required to make very difficult decisions. Let’s take the disabled individual described above. What if the disabled employee was harassing another employee who also has a protected characteristic? Should the employer terminate the disabled employee? This is a good question as the disabled employee may feel like he/she is experiencing retaliation based on his/her own protected characteristic. Often employers believe they need to retain a troublesome, yet protected employee to avoid a lawsuit. What if the disability and the harassment continue? At some point, the employer must make a tough decision which may lead to a very expensive lawsuit.
There are a variety of laws that protect employees from being “fired”. These protections are often vague and broad and cover a multitude of behaviors. For instance, California law states that employers may not “[d]ischarge, formally discipline, or otherwise discriminate against an employee who discloses information about the employer’s working conditions.”
What constitutes “working conditions”? What if an employee is fighting with another employee about a working condition? The employer likely has a policy against fighting and therefore should take action to stop the fighting. On the other hand, California law states that the employer is prevented from discharging or disciplining the employee for discussing working conditions. What if the fighting continues, escalates and/or causes significant disruption in the workplace? Should the employer terminate the employees at that point? What if the employees know about their rights and threaten the employer with a lawsuit? In California, the threat of a lawsuit is enough to cause many employers to have many sleepless nights.
California has openly expressed that it protects employees. Employees who understand the vague and broad nature of California law can rest assured that they are protected, especially if they are savvy enough to raise legal issues when their performance becomes an issue.
As an employer, it is very important to have sound policies and procedures which highlight obligations and rights of employees. It is also very important to maintain accurate and concise business documentation. If necessary, seek the advice of an experienced professional to determine whether to fire an employee.