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How to Legally Terminate an Employee 
by Robbi Erickson August 23, 2005

This article goes through the proper way to terminate an employee. It provides the three legal reasons to terminate an employee and it provides the reader with the steps that they need to take to be able to defend their position in case they are ever faced with a wrongful termination lawsuit.

When terminating a worker, employers must take care to follow specific legal guidelines. By adhering to the necessary procedures, an employer can ensure that he avoids any legal entanglements, and that the difficult situation is handled as smoothly as possible.

The Employment-at-Will Doctrine

The basis for an employer to terminate an employee without being sued is the employment-at-will doctrine. This doctrine is basically just a statement that is signed by both the employee and employer at the time of hire that states that the employee can quit at any time for any reason without notice and that the employer can terminate the employee at any time for any legal reason. I say "legal" reason because employers do have a few limitations on why they can fire an employee.

State and federal laws create most of the limitations to the employment-at-will doctrine. The first restriction imposed on the employment-at-will doctrine is state law. Most states require "just cause" before the employer is able to terminate the employment relationship. For example, in the states of California and New York, state law requires that an employer have "just cause" before they can legally terminate an employee. If the employee suspects that they have been frivolously terminated they can bring suit against their employer and collect damages for loss of income due to the illegal termination of their job.

Protective provisions outlined in state and federal laws create the second set of limitations that make it illegal for employers to terminate an employee based on protected statuses. For example, it is against federal law to terminate an employee because she is pregnant, because the employee is over forty years of age, or because the employee is  not white.

Public policies and interests also must be taken into consideration when terminating an employee as these considerations may make the termination illegal. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee because they took time off to serve on jury duty. It is also not legal to terminate an employee because they refused to perform an illegal act that their boss ordered them to do.

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