Getting fired is always upsetting. Sometimes it’s confusing. Here’s what to know when you’re facing a “pink slip.” North Carolina is an “at-will employment” state. And so is every other state except Montana.
That means that you usually have no recourse if your employer decides to fire you. Essentially, when employment is at will, an employer can terminate any employee at any time for any reason, or no reason.(On the other hand, it also means you can quit your job at any time, for any reason—or no reason.)
The default at-will terms may be changed by an employment contract, if you have one. But the simple existence of a contract will not change the nature of your employment. Unless the contract is crystal clear and specific, courts will tend to favor the “at-will” interpretation.
But there are exceptions. One is the contract that very specifically lays out the conditions under which you may be terminated. Such contracts are quite rare. Even without a contract, though, employers cannot fire you for an illegal or wrongful reason.
An illegal termination is one that violates state or federal law. For instance, federal civil rights laws forbid discrimination in employment on the basis of race, sex (including sexual preference and gender identity), national origin, religion, or age. Firing an employee for any of these reasons is illegal.
It’s also illegal to fire an employee in retaliation for reporting employer wrongdoing or exercising certain legal rights. For instance, an employee may not be fired for reporting safety violations to federal or state regulatory agencies, or for seeking accommodations under the Americans with Disability Act. State law provides a number of specific activities that are protected in this way.
Terminations that are otherwise legal may still be wrongful. A wrongful termination subjects the employer to civil liability. Wrongful terminations fall into two broad categories.
First, a termination that violates the employer’s own rules will be wrongful. An employer that has created and published a policy defining when and how an employee may be terminated cannot then fire employees in violation of that policy.
Second, a termination that violates public policy will be wrongful. A firing violates public policy when it undermines state law or runs contrary to a clearly stated public policy. Employees cannot be fired, for instance, for refusing to engage in illegal or fraudulent behavior. Employers may also run afoul of this public policy exception if they fire employees for performing civic duties—such as voting, serving on jury duty, or serving in the military. An employer who terminates an employee for leaving work early to vote, for instance, or refuses to provide time off for jury duty, will be subject to an action for wrongful termination.
Even if your firing is not wrongful, you still have some rights. Most importantly, you have a right to any pay your employer still owes you. That includes any regular pay still owed you, including hourly and overtime wages or outstanding salary, as well as any commissions or other payments that have been promised but not paid. Under North Carolina law, those amounts must be paid out at the next regular payday after your termination.
You do not have a legal right to a severance agreement in North Carolina. However, if your employer offers you one, you have a right to have it reviewed by an attorney. A legal review is important because a severance agreement is rarely a simple gift—most severance packages require you to agree to some conditions. Most common are provisions requiring you to surrender your right to any legal action against the employer, forbidding you to talk publicly about your firing, or barring you from taking a job that will put you in competition with your former employer.
Finally, North Carolina’s anti-blacklisting law prevents your former employer from interfering with your future employment. Your employer can report truthfully that you were discharged, and give the reason, but he or she cannot act to keep you from getting a job.
If you suspect your firing is wrongful, or you’re looking at a severance package, you should consult an attorney. An employment law attorney can help determine whether you may have a wrongful termination case or review the employer’s proposed severance agreement and help you negotiate the best deal possible.
At Miller Law, we can help you navigate the aftereffects of a termination and make sure any severance agreement protects your interests as well as your former employer’s. For a consultation contact us or call 919-348-3461.