Does my employer need any justification for firing me?
If you don't have an employment contract, your employment is likely "at will." This means that your employer does not have to have a good reason to fire you as long as it's not for an illegal reason, such as discrimination or retaliation. This means you could be fired for things that happen outside of your job, or for simply annoying a coworker.
If you have an employment contract, often the terms of that contract will define the kind of reasons your employer can use to fire you. Some employment contracts leave it open ended, some simply say that you can be fired "for cause", and some mimic the relevant state law on firing. Typically such clauses will be construed to mean that your employer must have a legitimate business reason to fire you, but it varies state by state. Check your employment contract carefully however, sometimes employment contracts simply state that you are employed "at will".
How can I tell if I have an employment contract?
Although many contracts are written, the law recognizes oral contracts as valid. This means that if you were promised certain rights by your employer, but never got the promise in writing, you may have nonetheless created a valid oral contract.
In such cases, it really pays to find an attorney since proving the existence and terms of an oral contract varies greatly in different states. Common oral agreements that may constitute an oral contract include:
What are typical illegal reasons for firing me?
One of the most important job rights is the right to be free from discrimination. Employers typically cannot fire you based on your race, national origin, sex, religion, disability, or age. Some states now protect other categories such as sexual orientation and marital status, so it always pays to check your state laws. In addition, these laws also typically prevent retaliation if you file a complaint against your employer for discriminating against you.
Other typically illegal reasons for firing an employee include firing them for:
How can I protect my rights before leaving my job?
Always document the circumstances under which you were fired. This includes who you talked to, what they said and any accompanying conduct by both parties. It can be helpful to write emails to preserve a record, and make sure to make copies of any relevant emails as well.
You can also keep a work journal that records significant employment events such as performance reviews, commendations, reprimands, salary changes, or even less formal comments of approval or disapproval. Always record the date, time and location as well as who was present at any such events. Even if you don't want to challenge the legality of your firing, you will sometimes need to show that you were fired for reasons that didn't involve your own misconduct, and these materials can help immensely.
In addition, ask to see your personnel file. Most states require employers to make this available to you on request. Copy, review and inventory your file. This helps document whether other things were added to the file at a later day in attempt to justify your firing after the fact.
Finally, keep any materials that may be relevant such as employee handbooks, memos, brochures, orientation materials, or any written evaluations of your work. Be very, very careful when taking documents from your employer, though - especially anything that is designated as confidential or for internal use only. Chances are good that your employer will counter-sue you for wrongfully obtaining those documents. Some whistleblower statues provide protection against this, but be extremely careful.
Have an Attorney Help You With Your Wrongful Termination Claim
Even in states where employment is considered "at-will," employers don't have the right to discriminate or retaliate against employees. If you've been terminated and aren't clear of the reason why (or suspect retaliation or discrimination), you may want to talk to an employment lawyer.
Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure your rights are protected.