In California, which is an at-will employment state, an employer can terminate an employee for any reason, no reason or even the wrong reason. For instance, if an employer does not like an employee’s shirt color, the employer can terminate the employee on that basis. This recently happened in Florida, where an employer terminated 14 employees for wearing orange shirts for an after work happy hour function. If the reason for the termination was in fact because the employees wore matching orange shirts than this would not be illegal, but if the employee’s wore matching orange shirts as a sign of protest against management but were terminated in retaliation for “protesting” then this would be illegal.
Although the reason for this termination may seem harsh, unjust or unfair, it is not illegal. In order to be illegal the reason for the employee’s termination must be based upon a protected characteristic, such as race, color, religion, age, sexual orientation, or disability. Therefore, if the employer terminates an employee for any of the above reasons it would be illegal. Another reason a termination would be illegal is if is based upon a protected activity. This last area is complicated and often confuses employees. An example of a protected activity would be if the employee complained to someone in human resources about being sexually harassed at work by her supervisor or co-worker. The employer does nothing to address the employee’s complaint, rather the employee is subjected to further harassment and retaliated against for her “protected” complaint. Another example, which happens more often than you think, is when the employee is entitled to overtime pay and complains to the employer in order to receive the earned overtime pay, the employer retaliates against the employee and terminates her. That would be considered wrongful termination which is illegal. The two examples above, like the case of the employee’s wearing orange shirts in Florida it would be illegal to terminate and discriminate against employees for engaging in a protected activity.
If you believe you have been discriminated, retaliated or harassed while at work but are not sure if the conduct unfair or illegal you should contact an employment lawyer. Further if you believe you have engaged in a protected activity and have been retaliated because of it you should contact a lawyer to discuss. This article is not intended to give legal advice. If you need a consultation concerning specific questions relating to discrimination, harassment, or employment discrimination settlements call Stevens & McMillan at (800) 738-3353.