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Can they really fire you for that? Understand at-will employment

Do you have an employment contract? Are you a member of a union that has a collective bargaining agreement with your employer?

Unless one of those things is true, you’re probably what’s known as an “at-will employee.” That means that you — and your employer — are free to end the employment agreement whenever you please.

Believe it or not, many people thought that “at-will employment” was something that would benefit employees because it kept them from being stuck working someplace they didn’t want to work any longer.

The reality, however, is that most at-will employees find themselves in a rather precarious position when they realize that they can be terminated for absolutely any reason that doesn’t violate a federal, state or local law related to discrimination.

In other words, your employer can’t fire you because of your religion, race, ethnic origin, gender, age or anything else that makes you part of a legally protected class of citizens. What can you be fired for? Even this small list may surprise you:

  • Posting an opinion, joke or meme on your Facebook page that your employer doesn’t like
  • Tweeting a personal opinion that generates negative attention
  • Having a different political view from your employer
  • Making a private phone call on the company phone
  • Drinking on your own time because your boss believes it’s a sin
  • Smoking or using tobacco products (even at home)
  • Having a “morally questionable” side job, like telling fortunes, lingerie modeling or erotic dancing
  • Having an affair while you are married
  • Getting pregnant while you are unmarried

In reality, most companies try to be fair. Common reasons people get fired include things like damaging company property, flunking a drug or alcohol test, insubordination, sexual harassment and stealing. But vague terms like “violating company policy” or “misconduct” take on new meaning once you realize that either term could include something like “being seen smoking.”

It can be very difficult for a layperson to know whether or not their legal rights have been violated when they’ve been fired for a reason that seems unfair. That makes it important to seek out information any time you have a question about the legality of what has happened and why.

Source: the balance, “Top 10 Reasons for Getting Fired,” accessed Aug. 31, 2017