Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Therefore, you may not be fired because you are black, or Jewish, or female, or any reason that falls into those five categories. These are called "protected reasons."
In 1967, age was added for people over 40. If you are 38 years old and believe you were fired on the basis of age, you may not have an actionable complaint on the federal level.
Some states have added more group protections. For example, in the state of Vermont you may not be fired for sexual orientation. If you believe you were fired for being gay in Vermont, you should talk to a lawyer.
Unions are formed in order to protect workers from employer exploitation. They use collective bargaining in order to negotiate fair and reasonable treatment for members. Depending upon the union an employee belongs to, there may be reasons for which he may not be fired. For example, UFCW Local 1059 includes a clause in their contract protecting union members from job discrimination on the basis of union membership and marital status.
Some employers offer contracts to non-union employees. For example, in some private schools, non-union teachers sign one-year contracts. If a teacher is laid off before the year is out, the employer may owe her a full year's salary.
Everybody else in 49 of the states is an "at-will" employee. At-will employees may be fired at any time for any reason or no reason, just not a protected reason. What does this mean?
- You may be fired with no notice. You may be asked to leave the premises immediately.
- You may be fired for any reason. For example, a hapless former employee wrote in to the Evil HR Lady at CBS Moneywatch to complain that he was fired for violating an unwritten policy.
- You may be fired for no reason. The weak explanation about how the employee mentioned above violated an unwritten policy was completely unnecessary. "We are no longer in need of your services" is sufficient.
- You may not be fired for a protected reason, such as listed in Title VII.
Of course, if you think you were really fired for a protected reason, talk to a lawyer.
Or, you could try moving to Montana. In 1987, the Montana Legislature enacted the Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act (WDEA). This covers non-contracted, non-union employees who have been on the job at least six months and have completed any probationary period set by the employer.
In Montana, you may be fired for good cause, such as never showing up on time or not doing the job you were hired to do. Violating an imaginary policy that has never been put in writing during your free time would not get you fired in Montana. Perhaps the rest of the country should take note and emulate Montana.
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