What is Wrongful Discharge?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Wrongful discharge is a legal concept regarding the dismissal of employees from a workplace. A fired employee can sue the workplace for wrongful discharge under a variety of circumstances, including discrimination, contract termination, or illegal working requirements at the workplace. Many countries and legal systems throughout the world have some form of wrongful dismissal statute in order to protect workers from abuse and ensure strict following of federal workplace laws.

Someone wrongfully discharged usually has several legal options available.
Someone wrongfully discharged usually has several legal options available.

When agreeing to accept a job, many workers sign an employment agreement or contract that specifies how legal termination is handled. Many workplaces in the United States have an “at will” clause that allows both the worker and the employer to terminate the contract without notice or grounds. In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, most employers can only fire an employee without notice within a few months of beginning employment. Although an “at will” clause gives employers some protection in regards to firing practices, certain circumstances may still give an employee grounds for a wrongful discharge suit.

Discrimination is a primary cause cited in many wrongful termination lawsuits. In regions that have anti-discrimination laws, a worker cannot be fired or discriminated against based on a variety of factors, including age, race, sex, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. If a worker has evidence that termination was based on discrimination, he or she may be able to bring a successful wrongful dismissal suit against the employer.

Another common cause of wrongful discharge suits is refusal to take part in illegal practices. If a worker is fired because he or she refused to take part in an illegal or unsafe activity, this may be grounds for a lawsuit. For instance, in industries where there are state, regional or federal safety regulations which the company chooses to ignore, it may be illegal to fire a worker who refuses to perform a job unsafely. Alternatively, if a company is violating laws, such as insider trading regulations on the stock market, an employee may be able to sue if he or she refuses to take part in these activities, and may actually gain legal protection by blowing the whistle on criminal activity in the workplace.

Wrongful discharge claims can also be brought if an employer signed a contract with a worker guaranteeing a certain term of employment. These contracts often have exceptions that allow the employer to fire the worker under certain circumstances, such as gross incompetence or illegal behavior. Companies and workers can avoid the potential for this type of lawsuit by ensuring that all contracts are fully read, understood, and even possibly examined by a lawyer before being signed.

If a wrongful discharge case is proved, the judge or jury may award the defendant a wide variety of recompense. Workers may be granted back pay, reinstatement at the workplace, payment of legal costs and damages. Clear contract agreements, adherence to all applicable laws, and an open dialogue between workers and management can all help reduce the chance of a potential expensive wrongful dismissal case.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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