Can I Be Fired For Something My Spouse Did?

Couple bored in marriage , Portrait of a sad looking couple facing unemployment.

An AOL Jobs reader asks:

My husband worked for a retail marketing company and decided to terminate his employment with them without notice. About 6 months later I decided to apply and was hired as an independent contractor. This morning I received an email stating that due to my husband's account they can no longer employ me. They are removing me from the stores that I had agreed to service and are changing my status to inactive. How is this legal for them to terminate me on the merit of my husband?

This is more common than you might think. A husband or wife gets in trouble with an employer and their spouse is caught up in the backlash. In general, since you're likely an at-will employee, they can fire you because they don't like that your husband didn't give proper notice.

There are some circumstances where it would be illegal to fire you to get back at your spouse. Here are some examples of when retaliation against a family member is illegal:
  • Retaliation for discrimination complaint: Say your spouse complained about race, age, sex, national origin, disability or other discrimination. Maybe they're even suing. Firing you to get back at them would be illegal retaliation under Title VII and under most state discrimination laws.
  • Retaliation for whistleblower complaint: If your spouse reported or objected to illegal activity of the company and is protected under a whistleblower law, you're also probably protected from retaliation.
  • Association discrimination: Let's say your spouse is injured, becomes disabled or has to take Family and Medical Leave. You are generally protected from being fired due to your association with a disabled person.
As you can see, you have very limited protection. I see employees who get fired due to embezzlement or theft by spouses and family members quite often.

It seems pretty unreasonable to fire you because your spouse didn't give enough notice, but that's one of the consequences of the at-will employment system we've accepted in this country. If you think this is wrong, talk to your legislators about changing the law.

If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs.

Please note: Anything you write to me may be featured in one of my columns. I won't be able to respond individually to questions.
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