What Does “Employment at Will” Really Mean?

In North Carolina, the employment relationship is described as “at-will.”  That means that an employer can terminate you for any reason, even an unreasonable one, as long as it’s not one forbidden by law or express agreement.   While this is a relatively simply statement to make, it is a lot less simple to understand in the real world.   We often  find ourselves explaining to frustrated employees why a terribly unfair workplace situation is not necessarily the basis of a law suit.

For example, these are some of the fact patterns that clients have brought to us:

“My co-workers lied to my supervisors about my performance.  They told them I was rude to customers when I wasn’t at all.  The Company fired me on the basis of false claims and I would like to sue them for wrongful termination.”

“My boss hired his wife’s cousin and, although she did a terrible job, he promoted her over me.  I told my boss that he is a poor manager and his favoritism is affecting office morale.  He wrote me up for a poor attitude and 2 weeks later he fired me.  This is so unfair and all my friends tell me I should talk to a lawyer.”

Unfortunately for the above employees, without an employment contract or other facts, it’s unlikely that any of the above scenarios are illegal.  Because North Carolina is an employment at will state, the employer may lawfully create a lousy work environment, poorly manage the office, or rely on misrepresentations of co-workers to fire you.

What can be the basis of a lawsuit is making employment decisions (hiring, promoting, firing) on the basis of certain characteristics of an employee (e.g. age, race, gender, religion, disability, or national origin).  Employees rights under these claims are set out in detail under the federal law commonly referred to as “Title VII.”

In North Carolina there are additional state law protections against wrongful termination.Employers in North Carolina are restricted for terminating employees in violation of public policy or in violation of the Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA).

The “Wrongful Discharge in Violation of Public Policy” doctrine is complicated. In brief, this claim may be premised on a discharge related to: (l) an employee’s refusal to violate the law at the employer’s request, or (2) an employee’s exercise of a protected right, or (3) based on some activity by the employer contrary to law or public policy.  What constitutes “public policy” is a subject matter for an entirely new blog!

REDA is set out in the statutes and it protects an employee from termination in retaliation for an employee’s exercise of certain protected actions.  These protected actions are extremely specific and many situations are not protected.   Here is a list of some actions that are considered “protected”:

  • Filing a claim for workers compensation benefits with the N.C. Industrial Commission;
  • Reporting an OSHA violation to the N.C. Department of Labor; or
  • Filing a claim for unpaid wages or unlawful withholding with the N.C. Department of Labor.

If an employer fires an employee for any of the above reasons, the employee may have a claim under REDA.

That clears it up, right?

If you feel you may have been wrongfully terminated or discriminated against, we urge you to contact attorneys that practice extensively in employment law for advice on the situation.

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