We regularly hear from people who believe they’ve been wrongfully discharged. The circumstances vary widely – from a boss who is constantly berating an employee to a coworker who is making the work environment difficult – but often these circumstances do not arise to a protectable interest under the law. Admittedly, the line between a boss who is awful and a boss who is violating the law is not black and white.
For example, consider the following: Jane Smith sells computer software. She is discharged without much documentation of performance issues, and without any complaints from customers. In fact, she is not given a reason for her termination. In the past, Jane Smith’s boss has made it clear that she does not like Ms. Smith, and would prefer not to work with her. Has Jane Smith been wrongfully discharged? In all likelihood, she has not. To prove wrongful discharge, Jane Smith would have to demonstrate a “mosaic” of discrimination, i.e., that she was the subject of direct comments of discrimination, that she was treated less favorably than her male counterparts, and/or that her employer gave conflicting reasons for Ms. Smith’s termination.
Illinois is an at-will employment state. In other words, employers can fire employees, like Ms. Smith, at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, provided that the reason is not an unlawful one. The “unlawful reasons” fall into a few, narrow categories:
- Discrimination: In Illinois, an employer cannot fire an employee based on that person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, order of protection status, marital status, disability, military status, sexual orientation, or pregnancy.
- Violation of Employment Statutes: An employer cannot fire an employee for exercising rights under federal statutes such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), etc and state statute equivalents.
- Violation of Public Policy: Above and beyond discrimination based upon the narrow categories detailed above, the law protects individuals who are terminated in violation of a public policy. For example, someone who “blows the whistle” on an employer’s illegal activity or exercises workers’ compensation rights cannot be terminated for taking such actions.
In some instances, the employment-at-will doctrine is superseded by an employment contract. If you have entered into an employment contract with your employer, you cannot be terminated unless you are terminated in accordance with the terms of your contract. For example, your contract may state that you can only be terminated “for cause.” What constitutes “for cause” will be outlined in your employment contract, but often includes gross misconduct, an intentional breach of the employer’s policies, etc. Employees under an employment contract are similarly protected from discrimination and violations of public policy.
As these guidelines indicate, an employer often has wide latitude and discretion to terminate an employee without breaking the law. An employee must show more than unfair treatment to bring a wrongful discharge claim.