There’s not one word that can fully describe what it’s like when you find out you’ve been let go: anger, disappointment, sadness – it’s a rollercoaster of emotions that can leave anyone feeling dazed and confused. And no matter how your employer phrases it (‘We’re currently restructuring’, ‘It’s the layoff period’, ‘It’s not you, it’s the company!’), they all mean the same thing: you’re fired.
But what if the reasons behind your termination are unclear? Can your employer fire you for no reason at all? Do you have the right to sue your employer?
If you’ve checked your employee handbook and still don’t have a clear answer, then you’ve come to the right place. Here we outline the steps you can take if you think you’re the victim of wrongful termination.
1. Keep Calm and Call a Colleague
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve already been given the pink slip. Now you’re sitting at home with a carboard box filled with your office things and wondering why this happened to you and not someone else.
While your situation is undoubtedly a bitter pill to swallow, the first thing you should do is think back and be honest with yourself. Could there indeed be a reason you were let go? Did your manager or HR properly explain the reasons behind your termination?
If you’ve racked your brains for a possible explanation and still can’t come up with one, arrange a meeting with a trusted colleague to go over what happened. They can support you while also provide you with a more truthful assessment about your work performance which can give you a better idea about why you were let go.
2. Check Your Contract
The next thing you should do is carefully recheck your contract to see if the reason you were dismissed is covered. For example, if you were fired for failing to perform a job role that isn't listed on your contract, then it might be worth getting in touch with a legal specialist.
Conversely, you may have willingly signed an agreement that states the company are within their rights to fire you for no reason, which, although it sucks, is legally justifiable. This is known as 'at-will' employment in the US (although there are a few major exceptions when at-will employment can’t be used as a reason for termination, such as firing a pregnant woman for taking maternity leave).
What About Redundancy?
Redundancy is slightly different, because the causes of it may not be covered in your original contract.
In the US, redundancy rights are covered under the WARN Act, although the level of protection offered to an employee differs by state. Generally, though, for companies that practice the aforementioned employment-at-will, there is no requirement to provide justification and your dismissal will be considered valid.
In the UK, however, your company can only make you redundant under one of three circumstances - your job role is no longer needed, the place of work is relocating, or the business is shutting down. Outside of these contexts, you may be able to prove that your forced dismissal is unfair.
3. Determine If You’ve Been Unfairly Dismissed
If you’ve checked your contract and found no reason why your employer should fire you, then there’s a possibility that you’ve been unfairly dismissed. There are several instances when this could be the case. These include:
- if your contract promises job security after successfully passing a probationary period
- if you were fired to prevent you from collecting a promised commission or promotion
- if you were terminated for taking your maternity or paternity leave
- if you were let go for exposing company malpractices (whistleblowing)
- if you were terminated because of discriminatory reasons such as race, gender, religion or age.
Being unfairly dismissed can also happen when you’re forced to terminate your contract because of your job environment or your employer’s behaviour. This is called constructive dismissal or discharge. Some examples of this include experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace or being asked to travel to dangerous places without being given proper insurance.
These are only some examples where a person is wrongfully terminated. Be sure to check with your local labour laws for other instances when unfair dismissal also applies.
4. Take Legal Action
If you believe that you’ve been unfairly dismissed or wrongfully terminated, you can challenge your dismissal in several ways.
If you live in the UK, you can challenge your dismissal by appealing to your employer. Take note, however, that you can only file for appeal a day after and within three months of your dismissal. It’s also important to consider that, in some cases, being let go and getting a good recommendation letter may be the better option, especially if keeping your job doesn’t necessarily mean changing the company culture. For example, if you were let go because you got sick for an extended period of time, then what does that say about your employer?
However, if your employer has no appeal process and you don’t want things to get messy or dragged in public, you can always resolve issues by asking for help from Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). But if you’ve been an employee for over two years and strongly believe that you’ve been unfairly dismissed, you can file your claim at an employment tribunal where they will assess your situation and decide what kind of legal action to take. If you’re able to prove your claim, there are instances when the tribunal will even ask for the company to compensate you.
If you live in the US and think that you’re a victim of unlawful termination, you could always take your employer to court by hiring an employment attorney. If you decide to sue your employer, be prepared to present evidence about your employment history. This will include a number of documents, including a copy of your contract, your past performance reviews and even email exchanges between you and your boss. These are all necessary to build a strong case.
However, if you can’t afford or don’t want to hire a lawyer, you can still file a discrimination complaint at the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, provided you were fired for discriminatory reasons. While waiting for the court’s decision and in the process of looking for a new job, you can also file for unemployment insurance and benefits if you’re eligible. The conditions and application procedures vary from state to state, so it would be wise to first check with your local government.
5. Consider Your Options Moving Forward
While getting fired is one of the most painful and stressful situations a person can ever experience, it’s also important to remember that it’s not the end of the world. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to get another job. If the incident does come up in a future interview, it will probably take the form of a question such as ‘why did you leave your last job?’. When this happens, remember to stay truthful but brief. There’s no need to drag out your issues in front of a possible future employer; just prepare as much as you can and rehearse your answers.
Losing your job is never a pleasant experience, especially if you were unfairly let go. But don’t wallow in your misfortune and let one company’s poor policies get you down. Instead, stay focused on your goals and explore other opportunities for growth. Think of it as a chance to finally try freelancing or, if you were lucky enough to get a hefty settlement, maybe even start your own business! Whatever you decide to do, remember that your future is entirely up to you.
Have you been wrongfully terminated by a former employer? What did you do about it? Let us know in the comments section below!
Meanwhile, don’t forget to check our comprehensive guide on your rights as an employee