CNBC: In the U.S., you can legally ‘be fired for any reason or no reason at all’—here’s why

Gili Malinksy

Tech companies have been making headlines lately for laying off hundreds and even thousands of employees. Twitter was the first, cutting hundreds of staff members overnight on November 3, and Meta followed suit, announcing it would cut more than 11,000. At the end of November, DoorDash announced it would lay off 1,250.

While some workers impacted by these latest cuts could be protected by the federal WARN Act, under which those considered to be part of a mass layoff are owed a 60-day written notice and their regular pay and benefits through that time, some may not.

In fact, under the U.S.’s at-will employment system, workers have very few protections in place to both help them keep their jobs and to cushion the blow ― financially, emotionally ― should they lose them. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world with such a system.

Here’s how at-will employment works, why it’s the de-facto system in America, and how other countries handle their workforce.

‘You can be fired for any reason or no reason at all’

Loosely defined, at-will employment “means that you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all,” says Najah Farley, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

You can get fired “because the boss is having a bad day,” says Arick Fudali, partner and managing attorney of civil rights firm the Bloom Firm, as an example. “Because he’s in a bad mood. Because you didn’t laugh at his joke.” None of these would necessarily qualify as unlawful termination, unfair as they may seem.

“Likewise, you can quit for any reason,” he says.

Montana is the only state in the U.S. which is not technically at-will, and employers there need to have a “good cause” for termination, according to its department of labor. In 2021, however, changes were made to Montana’s Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act, giving employers more leeway in this area.

‘Your boss can’t be flirting with you and then fire you’

There are several exceptions under which employees can’t be fired. Here are four of the critical ones:

  • Discrimination: Your employer cannot terminate you for being part of a protected class. They cannot terminate you based on “race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, age (40 or older), disability and genetic information (including family medical history),” according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Importantly, they also can’t fire you or let you go for complaining about discrimination that wasn’t directed at you.
  • Sexual harassment: Your employer can’t fire you or let you go for rebuffing or complaining about sexual harassment, whether it happened to you or someone else, even if that complaint turns out to be unfounded. “A boss can’t give you a quid pro quo offer of sex in exchange for your job and then fire you because you refused. Your boss can’t fire you because you’re being standoffish about the sexual harassment. Your boss can’t be flirting with you and then fire you because you didn’t respond,” says Fudali.
  • Whistleblowing: “You can’t be retaliated against for whistleblowing,” says Fudali, such as reporting violations of safety protocols in the workplace.
  • Union membership: Many workers who are part of a union are also an exception to the at-will employment system. “They bargain the contract and that puts them into just-cause employment,” says Farley. This means an employer has to have an explicit reason for firing or letting them go.

Read the full article at CNBC

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