Many people who have problems at work wonder if they have a case a lawyer would be interested in pursuing. Many people just want to know if what has happened to them is legal, even if they haven’t decided yet if they want to fight their employer over it. A typical Cincinnati employment lawyer will get many inquiries from people who have been disciplined, passed over for a promotion, or even terminated, but who don’t have any legal claim a lawyer can help them with. We will give you some basic guidelines to use in telling whether you or a friend or family member has been treated illegally by an employer. Remember, the only way to really know is to contact an employment law specialist to discuss your situation.
You Are Probably An “At Will” Employee
Most employees in most states are what is called “at will” employees. The section below will discuss in more detail what being an “at will employee” means for your legal rights. Your employment is “at will if:”
- you do not have an written employment agreement with your employer;
- you are not a member of a union your employer has a collective bargaining agreement with; or
- you are not a government employee protected by civil service or other rules set by statute to protect government employees from arbitrary conduct.
If you don’t fit into one of those categories, you are considered an “at will” employee. Your employer may have an employee handbook or other document very clearly stating your employment is “at will,” and what this means. But even if there is no handbook or other writing telling you you are “at will”, the law will consider you an “at will” employee unless you fall into one of the above categories.
What Does It Mean To Be An “At Will” Employee
The basic definition of “at will” employment is the employer can change or terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason—period. Many people are surprised to learn this is the law.
Typical Questions Employment Lawyers Get
Employment lawyers often get questions such as:
“You mean it’s legal for them to fire me for getting into an argument with another employee when it wasn’t my fault?”
“My boss has never liked me and he just gave a promotion to another employee who hasn’t been here as long and isn’t as good—can he do that?”
“They said I stole something, but I can prove I didn’t. Can they still fire me?”
“My employer just said they are going to move me to another position and lower my salary—can they do that?”
“I just got written up for clocking in one minute late, when a bunch of people clock in late and they never get written up. Can they do that?”
“My boss is a real jerk and is always yelling at me and criticizing me unfairly, and it feels like harassment. Is it legal for him to do that?”
The Answer To All Of These Questions
The answer to each of these questions, much to the surprise of many employees, is “YES”. Employers and bosses are free to be jerks, treat you unfairly, and base their decisions on things that aren’t really true. This what “for any reason or no reason” means. I sometimes tell people if their boss walked in one day and said, “I’ve decided to fire everyone who has red hair today”, that would not be illegal. Any reason, or no reason, includes stupid and irrational reasons.
BUT WAIT, NOT SO FAST—THERE ARE SOME REASONS THAT ARE ILLEGAL REASONS
Congress and state legislatures have decided to make some reasons for discipline or termination illegal. These are exceptions to the “at will” doctrine, and many of them are well known. An employer cannot discriminate against an employee because of their:
- Race or national origin
- Religion (with some exceptions for religious organizations)
There are other illegal reasons for terminating or disciplining employees. The Family And Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects employees who need time off work for serious medical conditions for them or their families. Whistleblower statutes give protections in certain situations for employees who report or refuse to engage in illegal conduct. It is also illegal for employers to sexually harass employees.
Determining whether one of these exceptions may apply to your situation depends upon the specific facts, and the particular statute that applies. If you suspect your termination or other workplace issue may have been the result of some illegal reason, you should not hesitate to contact an experienced Cincinnati employment lawyer to discuss your situation.