In the U.S., most employees are “at-will” employees, meaning that they have no contract that restricts the employers ability to terminate them. Both the employer and the employee are entitled to end the relationship at any time. However, an at-will employment policy does not give the employer carte blanche to terminate employees for any reason. Specific legal guidelines govern the rights and responsibilities of both parties in an at-will situation.

Employment Discrimination

Several federal laws exist that prohibit employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of age, race, gender, disability, religion, skin color or national origin. Federal employees are additionally protected against discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation and political affiliation. Many state laws include these categories in anti-discrimination laws as well.

Just as an employer may not refuse to hire someone based on his or her membership in a protected class, the employer may not fire someone on this basis. In short, employment discrimination laws apply to the termination of at-will employees.

Illegal Activity

Employers are not entitled to terminate employees for refusal to participate in illegal activities. If the employee can prove that termination followed such a refusal, he or she may be entitled to recover damages for wrongful discharge.

Breach of Contract

An employment contract may be expressly stated or implied. Examples include contracting the employee through a specific date or stating in the employee handbook that termination will only occur for cause.

Failure to Follow Company Policy

If the company has a written policy that specifies the steps that will be followed prior to termination, then the employer may not terminate an employee without following that procedure. For example, if the employee handbook states that two verbal and one written warning will be given, yet an employee is fired after a single verbal warning, this may constitute wrongful discharge.


The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects federal employees who file grievances regarding mismanagement, illegal conduct or waste of funds from being fired in retaliation. Similar laws protect employees in the private sector. In short, employers may not terminate employees for exercising their rights to complain about illegal or inappropriate situations in the workplace. In most states, these protections extend to employees who file for workers compensation or other programs that are designed for their benefit.

Filing a Complaint

The procedure that an employee should follow in a wrongful termination case depends on the facts of the situation. Various agencies are in place to handle such matters, depending on the law that was violated.


The most common remedies for wrongful discharge include reinstatement and monetary compensation for time lost. The employee may also have grounds to file a lawsuit against the employer to recover further damages.