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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

So, You Just Got Fired—Was it Wrongful Termination?


You landed the job, you’ve worked hard, and you’re living the dream—and then, seemingly out of the blue, you receive notice that your employment is being terminated. Whether you’re given time to transition out of your job or you’re immediately walked to the parking garage with a box of your belongings, losing a job ranks as one of life’s most stressful experiences.

It can feel even worse if you have questions about why you were let go. Was it something you said or did? Or was your termination unfair, or perhaps even an unlawful dismissal? Can you sue your ex-employer?

Although employment laws vary from state to state, here are five times when your termination might’ve been illegal:

1. Your Contract Required “Cause” for Termination

In most states, employees are presumed to be “at will”—meaning that employers don’t need a reason to fire them (so long as the reason is not an illegal one, which I’ll get to). But if you signed an employment contract, read it. It might state that your employment can only be terminated “for cause.” That “cause” may be defined by the contract or state law and could include things like willful misconduct, continued failure to perform job duties, or disclosing company secrets.

Even if you do not have a formal employment agreement, statements on an employment policy or procedure can be enough to create a “for cause” employment contract in some situations. The meaning of “cause” and the enforceability of these contracts will vary from case to case and from state to state, so it is important to talk to an attorney about your rights.

2. You Were Discussing Workplace or Labor Issues With Colleagues

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees cannot be fired for engaging in “protected concerted activity” (translation: Things like talking with co-workers about ways to improve wages or working conditions). You don’t have to be a member of a union to be protected under this federal law. If you believe your boss fired you in response to protected concerted activity, you might have a claim.

But be warned: The law protects employees who are working together to change working conditions. The law will not necessarily protect individual complaints, so you probably can be fired for “venting” to a colleague about your impossible boss.

3. Your Employer Retaliated Against You

If you witnessed wrongful activities at work and reported them, and if you were fired in response, then you might have a claim for wrongful termination based on unlawful retaliation. Employment laws are generally written to protect employees who report criminal activity or other illegal conduct. (In other words, generally speaking, employers cannot fire “whistle blowers.”)

Similarly, a person cannot lawfully be fired solely because he or she filed a workers’ compensation claim. Someone making this kind of claim will need to prove that it was retaliation and not based on poor performance or another lawful basis for termination.

4. Your Employer Discriminated Against You

Although it seems obvious and archaic, employees in the 21st century are still sometimes fired based on their race, gender, or citizenship status—and that’s illegal. Other classes are protected as well. Some states protect LGBT employees, and pregnant women are generally protected, too. Unlawful discrimination can give rise to a private lawsuit or a discrimination charge by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As with retaliation claims, an employee making a claim must prove that the termination was based on illegal discrimination.

5. You Were Fired Based on Your Medical History

As technology develops, so do employees’ rights, and now, even your genes are protected in the workplace. In 2008, Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”), which prohibits employers from using genetic information when making employment decisions. (Genetic information includes family medical history and tests that detect whether an individual has a higher risk of developing certain diseases.)

An employer who fires an employee based on that information, however it was obtained, faces penalties from the federal government. In other words, a genetic mutation that increases your chance for breast cancer cannot lawfully be the basis for your termination.

So, Should You Sue?

If you believe that your termination was illegal, talk to an employment attorney in your state. (No matter how much you remember from that business law class in undergrad, it’s usually not wise to file a complaint without the assistance of an attorney.) Different deadlines apply to claims in different states, so move quickly. Many attorneys will provide a free consultations and may be able to offer quick insight on the merits of your case and the potential recovery (or lack thereof), which can help you make an informed decision about how best to proceed.

Be sure to ask this person about his or her experience, fees, and the timeline for how the case might move forward. Also, once you officially hire him or her, be exceedingly honest. Surprises are great for birthday parties, but not for legal cases. Your attorney needs to know everything that might be relevant to your case.

The reality is that in many cases, the termination was lawful, and you might never receive a satisfactory answer as to why you were fired. Personalities may differ, working styles may be incompatible, or your skill set might not be as strong as what the employer requires. Focusing on the positive can help you personally and professionally, so use this opportunity to evaluate your strengths and skills and find a position that is a better fit for your abilities, style, and personality. Get started right now by checking out the five things you can do today to find that new job and start moving forward.

Note: This article has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information presented is not legal advice and is not to be acted on as such. If you need legal advice, you should consult an attorney.

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