Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Can my employer fire me for any reason, even if the reason is false, wrong, or unfair?
  2. What is a "good cause" basis for being fired?
  3. What is an implied contract?
  4. What if my employee manual indicates my employment is "at-will"?
  5. What if I accept a job offer and then I am fired before I have a chance to start the job?
  6. When does a firing violate a public policy?
  7. I am a member of a labor union, and I was fired, what do I do?

Can my employer fire me for any reason, even if the reason, is false, wrong, or unfair?

Unless you are a member of a labor union, or a protected employee by statute (e.g. civil service or federal employees), in many situations, the answer is YES. In New Jersey and several other states, employees are considered "at will."  At-will employees are ones that can be fired at any time by their employers, for any reason or for no reason at all. Equally, at-will employees may quit at any time as they are no subject to any contractual or legal obligations to stay with a particular employer.

However, there are special exceptions to the "at-will" employment status:

  1. If you have an oral or written contract specifying that you cannot be fired without "good cause.
  2. If you have an implied contract which would prevent you being fired without "good cause."
  3. If you made changes in reasonable reliance on a employer's new job offer and you were fired before or at the start of the new position.  The employer has to know about the changes you made such as quitting a job, leavings school/college, investing in training for the job, or relocating (moving) closer to the new position.
  4. If you were fired on a basis that violates public policy.  An example of this would be based on a "whistle blowing" law designed to protect against discrimination or a "tipster" law which is promote disclosure of illegal corporate activity which the corporation is required, but has not voluntarily disclosed to governmental authorities.
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What is a "good cause" basis for being fired?

"Good cause" normally exists when the employer has a realistic or legitimate business reason/basis for terminating the employee.  Examples of a "good cause" basis are: layoffs for economic reasons; the employee has documented poor performance; the employee is found to have committed a crime which impacts his/her employment (stealing, preparing false documents or submitting false information to a governmental agency, or assaulting another employee or customer); or the employee violates a company policy such as engaging a in discriminatory activity or sexual harassment.

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What is an "implied contract"?

An implied contract is created when statements and actions of the employer, and circumstances of the employment relationship lead the employee to reasonable believe that he/she is no longer an employee "at-will" and that the employer must have "good cause" to fire the employee.

Examples of elements to determine an implied contract would include (but not limited to);

  1. The presentment of an employee handbook or manual which does not clearly state the handbook or manual does not change the employee's status of an "at-will" employment and which has specific disciplinary procedures, appeal rights, or a list of offences which merit termination.  New Jersey, the law has developed over the last 20 years which has specific detailed limitations on the handbook/manual at-will employment language and violations of the law negates the at-will provisions of the manual/handbook.
  2. Employee handbook/manual which provides for progressive discipline.
  3. Employee handbook/manual which fails to include an "at-will" employment provision.
  4. The length of the employee's employment with the employer.
  5. Promotions, salary increases, bonuses, and benefits increases.
  6. Performance evaluations which reflect good/outstanding ratings and  commendations or "at-a-boy" letters.
  7. Statements by the employer assuring the employee that his/her employment is secure.
  8. Whether it is the practice and/or policy of the employer (does not have to be written) that the employer will only discipline or fire the employee only when there is a "good cause."
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What if my employee manual indicates my employment is "at-will?

As indicated in the preceding FAQ answer, there are specific limitations on the effect of employee manuals.  Additionally, if there evidence that the employee manual is honored in the breach (commonly disregarded or not followed) or there is evidence of an implied contract, that evidence may override the effect of the employee handbook/manual.

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What if I accept a job offer and then I am fired before I have a chance to start the job?

As indicated in the first FAQ, if you reasonably relied on the job offer and made changes  based on the job offer, the employer may be liable for wrongful termination (though you never started) or breach of contract.

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When does a firing violate a public policy?

New Jersey and several states and the federal government have laws that prohibit employers from firing employees based on certain forms of action, such as discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, whistle blowing, or providing certain information to governmental authorities the company had a duty to provide, but did not provide.  A firing based on any of these actions may entitle you to pursue legal action against the employer.

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I am a member of a labor union and I was fired, what do I do?

You are probably protected by union contract and if there was not a sufficient basis for your firing, you should immediately request your labor union to file a "grievance" against your employer.  In New Jersey, you also may have the right to request a full hearing and you may have appeal rights, including to the Superior Court, the Public Employment Relations Commission, Department of Labor, or the Merit System Board of the Department of Personnel (in case of civil service employees).

Depending on the type of labor union, you may also proceed with a complaint to the National Labor Relations Commission.

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Last modified: April 11, 2010 02:35 PM