Think You Were Fired Unfairly?

Your stomach knots and anger flares as you read that little pink slip of paper that just yanked away your professional security. How can you be fired?

You race through a mental checklist, grasping for what might have done you in -- but you were a loyal employee, you didn't even steal a pen, you were always on time, and you never cut corners with your work. Something just doesn't feel right about your termination.

Experts say even if your firing seems unfair, it may still be perfectly legal. "People generally think that they have a right to be treated fairly, and people usually believe they can't be fired as long as they didn't do something wrong," says attorney and career coach M. Diane Vogt.

But since most states don't look at employment that way, determining whether your termination was actually illegal could be a tricky and lengthy process.

Employment legislation 101

Most states consider employment to be "at-will," meaning that employment is considered voluntary and indefinite for both employees and employers. For you, at-will employment means you can quit your job for whatever reason you want, usually without consequence. And for your employer, at-will employment means "[u]nless you have a contract, you can be fired for any reason or no reason," Miami-based attorney Dale Bergman says.

There are, however, some exceptions to at-will statutes. Federal law prohibits firing an employee solely on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or age, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Web site. An employer also cannot fire a worker as retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, participating in an investigation or opposing discriminatory practices.

A lawyer might not be your best bet

If you have a strong reason to believe you were fired illegally, don't run to hire an attorney just yet. There may be better and less expensive options, Bergman says. suggests that as soon as you're fired, you should start doing some research:

Once you learn the facts behind your termination, Bergman says you should exercise the rights you have under your employer and state and federal law before taking legal action:

  • Stall for time. Stay calm and request some time to think things over.
  • Review your employment contract or letter of agreement. Review what it says about termination. If the employer didn't act according to the contract, your rights may have been violated.
  • Discover why you were fired. If the employer refuses to tell you or tells prospective employers other reasons later, you could have a stronger legal case.
  • Appeal to your employer. Many employers -- particularly large ones -- have an internal process to which you can appeal your termination.
  • Visit your regional EEOC. Employees can visit their local EEOC office without involving a lawyer, Bergman says. "They will investigate, and they will even try to settle [the case] if they feel there is substantial cause."
  • Hire an employment lawyer. If your employer doesn't settle and you still feel you have a strong case, enlist the help of an attorney.

Suing your employer has consequences

Besides being expensive and hard to win, wrongful termination lawsuits can be emotionally taxing, Vogt warns. "You have to decide if you can emotionally handle listening to someone talk about your shortcomings in a public forum," she says. "Sometimes that's hard to take."

Vogt also says any wrongful termination lawsuit you file will be on the public record and could be brought to the attention of your future employers -- potentially raising some eyebrows and having them wonder if you're a troublemaker.

"If you think your legal rights have been violated and you talk to a lawyer, one of the things you should consider is whether it's worth it," she says. Before suing, Vogt suggests you consider the stage of your career, how easy it will be to find another job, and how much money the firing will cost you.

Regardless of whether you decide to sue, being fired really may be in your best interest. "Usually when people lose a job, they find a better one," Vogt says. "What I find is that they'll hang on too long in a job where they're not really successful when they should have moved on a long time ago. So when the employer lets them go they're really doing them a favor."

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