US labour laws

Like too many people worldwide, a lot of what I know about the US comes from movies. I’ve noticed that whenever someone gets fired in an American movie, it’s always “clear out your desk this afternoon” or possibly “you’ll work the rest of the week”. It doesn’t really matter what genre the movie is or how serious it is.

So, my question is: can a US employer actually fire an employee so quickly? Is there no set time period that the employee is granted to continue working, during which he has a chance to find another job, tie up his affairs, etc?

What about quitting a job, can you do that immediately, without giving the employer time to find a replacement?

Also, does the employer have to motivate layoffs, or can he fire you for any reason he fancies?

Usually when someone is fired, the employer waits until the end of the day, announces it, has the employee escorted to his/her desk and observed while cleaning it out. Usually it’s not a big surprise to the employee.

Employers usually request two weeks notice but it isn’t mandatory.

Layoffs and firings are two different concepts; layoff implies that the company is making cuts and your position is no longer necessary; firing implies that you’ve done something wrong or are within a probation period and aren’t a good fit.

Employers can’t fire you for illegal reasons, such as age, race, religion, disability. Employment law is from two sources, state and federal. Federal rules apply in every state but each state is entitled to make its own rules, which vary.

I believe the phrase is ‘at-will employment’, meaning that you can quit, whenever and for whatever reason, and that you can be fired, whenever and for whatever reason. But in general, yes, you can be fired RIGHT NOW!!! for no given reason.

Union jobs may be different, as well as any contractual obligations in ‘white collar’ jobs. My previous contract stated that I would give 4 weeks notice before leaving, and if fired, would recieve 4 weeks pay. Oh, how I tried to get fired…

How is it ascertained for what reason an employee was fired? If an employer fires a black guy because he’s black, does he have a chance in hell to actually prove it was because he was black?

That is why we have courts and lawyers.

Prior to a firing, most employers will document the reasons - for instance, if a person is being fired for lousy attendence the employer will keep a record of them coming in late, not showing up, etc. so that if the employee takes them to court saying they were fired for, example, being black the employer can say no, we fired this person because he wasn’t showing up to work, see, here’s his attendence record.

Where I work, if you start having problems as an employee there’s a series of “conflict resolutions” and warnings that proceed the end of your job. Again, that’s so if it winds up in court the company can say see, we tried to fix the problem but couldn’t.

If, however, you’re caught stealing or committing any other crime on site that’s it - you’re out the door right then and there. They’ll have you escorted off the property by the security guards and your personal items from your desk will be mailed to you later. (Yes, I’ve seen this happen).

Layoffs, as already mentioned, are different than being fired. If, however, all the layoffs coincidently happen to be of one race, religion, etc. then the company may wind up facing a class action lawsuit, so employers usually put some thought into how they go about this and document how they chose which jobs to eliminate.

So, in practice, an employer cannot fire you for an arbitrary reason, because the firee might go to court and claim he was fired because he’s gay? And if you can’t show that you had an entirely legitimate reason to fire him, you’ll lose?

“So, in practice, an employer cannot fire you for an arbitrary reason, because the firee might go to court and claim he was fired because he’s gay? And if you can’t show that you had an entirely legitimate reason to fire him, you’ll lose?”
No, they can still fire you. The emplyer does not have to prove they fired you for some specific reason, you have to prove (or at least convince a judge/jury) they fired you for a specific prohibited reason. This is much harder. For instance, in your example it would be especially difficult if they had other gay people employed with no problem.

It’s a gray area.

Yes, in an “employment at will” state the employer can fire you at will and doesn’t have to go through the elaborate process I described. It just puts the employer at risk. As to whether or not the employer would lose in court… that would depend. If, for instance, someone claimed to have been fired because they were, say, Jewish but 2/3’s of the company employees are Jewish it’s not likely the court will side with the fired employee on that one.

One of the risks of setting up an elaborate system, such as my company has, is that if they don’t follow the policy and procedures and it winds up in court it will work against them.

Although there have been some highly publicized cases where employees win against former employers, in most instances the company wins.

Your example of someone being fired because they’re gay, then taking it to court, isn’t so great - homosexuals have little protection under the law and it is still legal in many areas to fire them simply because they are homosexual.

The size of the company has something to do with this. A small employer with 2 or 3 employees is much more likely to yell “You’re fired!” and boot someone out the door – and less likely to get sued. There are two reasons for this. For one, a very small employer is not as constrained by many labor laws. Second, an employer that small just doesn’t have a lot of money to go after. It’s usually less trouble to simply get another job than to take someone like that to court and attempt to get a judgement from them (money being the only thing you get out of that sort of court case). A larger company, however, is perceived as “deep pockets”. People sue the company I work for all the time - and not just the ex-employees. There’s this perception that because we’re big we can somehow “afford” to pay out in lawsuits.

I’ve seen employees fired, turn around and sue, and lose. And I’ve seen employees fired, turn around and sue, and win. In the former, it’s because they were fired for good reason i.e. not doing the job, falling asleep at work on a regular basis, not showing up, vandalism, etc. In the latter case, one I know about from being a witness, a supervisor was blatantly racist. Yeah, think the company dropped the ball on that one, but the supervisor responsible was fired, too. Then the former employee dragged the ex-supervisor into court to sue her again, personally.

And there are a few instances where the labor laws don’t apply equally. For instance, in an operation run by a church it IS legal to consider religion in hiring. The government will not force the Catholic Church to hire a practicing Satanist, for instance. If a business MUST run on a Saturday then they may not hire an orthodox Jew (but they better be up front about that in the job interview, and be able to prove why Saturday operations are so essential and can’t be worked around). There was a dust-up over Sikhs and hardhats in the construction industry awhile back - the Sikhs wanted to wear their turbans instead of the hardhats on job sites, citing religious reasons, and the construction companies said their hands were tired, they’d lose their insurance covereage (which they were mandated by law to have) if they allowed anyone on the sites without specified safety equipment. I forget how that turned out, but it spent considerable time in the court system.

So while the concept of “employment at will” seems pretty simple, in actual practice it’s gotten complicated thanks to lawyers and the animosity between various groups and factions in the country. It’s great that so many different sorts of folks manage to co-exist in this country without killing each other (in contrast to certain other parts of the world) but we do get things like the Sikhs and hardhat conflict which is less likely to arise in a more homogenous society.

Isn’t that more or less impossible? Is it enough to prove the absence of valid reasons? Ie I work hard, am always on time, am generally well-liked by my colleagues, don’t make many mistakes (and can show that these things are true), but got fired anyway. I’m gay, and there are no other open gays in my workplace. Would that get me anywhere in court? If not, what else is required?

Any examples of employees successfully suing their former employers over a wrongful firing?

I don’t know what’s required by law, but for many full-time jobs, standard practice is to promise either X weeks of advance notice before firing, or X weeks worth of severence pay in lieu of advance notice.

No, because as noted above, in most cases it is perfectly legal to fire someone for no reason. Proving that the firing was based on illegal discrimination is affirmatively required. However, it’s not nearly as impossible as you think – legal proof is not the same as mathmatical or logical proof; it simply means that the former employee has to marshall enough evidence to convince a jury that his version of events is slightly more likely to have occured than the employer’s version. Was the boss overheard at the company picnic to say he doesn’t like black people? Were others fired at the same time disproportionately minority? If the former employee can show enough of that type of evidence, he may win his case.

N.B. I again note (as Broomstick mentions above) that homosexuality is NOT protected throughout much of the U.S. While some states and many cities have their own anti-discrimination laws which protect gays from discriminatory hiring practices, in most areas of the U.S. it is perfectly legal for an employer to fire someone because they’re gay.


P.S. It sounds like you might be asking for reasons more than mere curiosity. As such, let me note that I am not licensed in your jurisdiction, I do not practice this type of law, and I have no information on the particular facts of this matter. As such, I am NOT COMPETENT to represent you. You should immediately consult an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction, expert in employment law, and fully conversant with all the facts in this case. You are not my client. I am not your lawyer.

Since the second part of your question hasn’t really been touched on, I should point out that, in right to work states, the specific situation is that, in the absence of an employment contract, either party - the employer or the employee - may end the relationship at any time. This means that one can in fact leave a job with no notice whatsoever, if there is no contract stipulating otherwise. The employer has no recourse against this - their recourse was to offer a contract of employment on specified terms - but they are of course not going to be happy about it, so you are unlikely to get a future reference that way.

*Originally posted by Priceguy *
Any examples of employees successfully suing their former employers over a wrongful firing?

My mother once sued a former employe for age discrimination. Seems the guy fired her, then hired an 18 year old girl with no skills and big boobs. He also had the gall to tell her she didn’t dare take it to court because he was a lawyer and mom was “just” a secretary. Mom won anyway.

My husband also once sued a former employer for discrimination and won, too - but I"m not sure he wants the details public. It did involve a supervisor being blatantly bigotted in front of a couple dozen witnesses, which is a stupid thing to do but happens amazingly often. Guess it’s true bigots are often idiots, too.

So there has to be evidence that the reason was in fact illegal? It’s not enough that there are no good reasons to fire me; I have to show that there is a reasonable chance that the reason was an illegal one. Right?

Does anyone have a link to a case such as this, so I could study it more closely?

No, I am in fact asking out of mere curiosity. I live in Sweden and so US labour laws affect me personally very little. It’s just that the image I got of these laws made them seem totally different from Swedish laws, which interested me.

Right, because there is no such thing, in an at-will employment scenario as “no good reason.” Any reason is acceptable except one which is illegal. You can be the prize employee, really, and still get the boot without any recourse.

If you’re never late, stay overtime regularly, never take a sick day, do more than required for your job, get along well with all coworkers, run the company charity drive, regularly take only 45 minutes at lunch instead of a full hour and smell like honey and rose petals, you can still be legitimately let go because your boss dislikes your voice, or because you remind him of his ex-wife or because you always wear khakis and he hates khakis, because none of those aspects of your person/personality are protected by law.

What it comes down to is that the number of reasons for firing which aren’t legitimate is limited, the reasons for firing which arelegitimite are fairly infinite. So if you feel that you’ve been let go for one of those illegitimate reasons, you bear the burden of proving so and will need some compelling evidence before pursuing a wrongful termination case.

I don’t know where you get this idea, but you cannot fire someone because they’re gay. While the laws may not specifically read “you can’t fire someone because they’re gay” if you are fired and can prove it happened because you’re gay you will win in court. It’s discrimination plain and simple.

It varies greatly from state to state.

Texas has pretty employer-friendly labor laws. If you lay people off (i.e. for budget cuts) you only have to give notice if you employ 150 people or more. In that case, they have to give 90 day notice if they lay off more than a certain number of people (I can’t remember the figure). I know this because I was laid off along with a couple of hundred other people from a large company, and most of the people continued to get paychecks for 90 days even though they were sent home as soon as it was announced. In an ISP a disgruntled worker can cause a HUGE financial loss for the company, and they didn’t want a lot of people sitting at their computer thinking about how they won’t have the job in 3 months, and how to get back at them, so the laid off people were caught pretty much by surprise (we knew there were layoffs coming but had no idea who was being let go) and didn’t have the opportunity to do any harm, though technically they were still employees and drawing paychecks.

I was unfortunate enough to be a trusted employee, I had to work that 90 days plus an extra 30 during the transition to the outsourced call center.

As to firing people, Texas is a ‘Right to Work’ state, which paradoxically means that an employer can let someone go without having to document a series of warnings or give a reason other than poor work performance or a violation of any rule. If I sent a personal email from my work address, I could be escorted out right then by state law, although my companies policy is to usually give a warning first. Though they do give warnings for a lot of things, there are a lot of things you can get fired for immediately. If my supervisor decided that my performance was poor and they needed to let someone go, I could be sent home without warning.

I actually like things this way, though. Like most people, I work in a job where a few lazy workers can make things more difficult for other people. The few who do manage to hang in there are annoying enough, I don’t like to think of what it would be like if my employers had to keep the ones they’ve already let go around.

Just out of interest, if it does come to court, is the employer likely to actually say this?

“I hated the guy’s voice.”

“She looks just like my exwife.”

Or will he stonewall?

If he’s smart, he’ll tell the truth about his goofy reasons, but it has been known to happen that the employer tries to cover up goofy but legal reasons because he figures they’re not “good” enough. Unfortunately, this will often make his side of the story unconvincing when confronted with the evidence, so that the jury sees the cover-up and then believes it’s an attempt to hide illegal discrimination.


I strongly suspect that Cliffy got that idea from law school. Where did you get yours?