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If an employee is in a protected class, does that mean you can’t fire them?

On Behalf of | May 23, 2023 | Wrongful Termination |

As a business owner, you sometimes have to fire employees. It’s a hard situation. But you know that it’s necessary. Recently, you’ve decided that you need to let one of your employees go for the good of the company.

But the problem is that the employee is in a protected class. These classes include immutable characteristics like race, religion, age, pregnancy and disability. For instance, maybe the worker you’re firing is over 40 years old, or perhaps that worker is part of a minority ethnic group. You know that you’re not allowed to fire employees for these reasons, so does that mean that you’re not going to be able to let this person go?

You can still fire them for a legal reason

The best way to think about at-will employment is like this: It means that you don’t have to have cause. You can fire someone for no reason at all. You don’t have to provide them with a reason, and there doesn’t have to be any justification. You don’t have to prove to anyone that it was a necessary firing. The worker can say that there was no reason for it, and that’s fine. There doesn’t have to be. But you still can’t fire employees for illegal reasons. You’re not allowed to fire someone specifically because you think they’re too old or because you find out that they’re part of a specific religion. If you use those protected classes as the grounds for a firing or lay-off, that is illegal.

In your situation, it could be that your employee simply isn’t productive enough. Yes, they are in a protected class, but that has nothing to do with why you want to let them go. You would fire anyone – of any age or any group – if they showed the same lack of productivity. If this is true, it would not be illegal for you to terminate that employee under at-will employment laws. You simply need to make sure that you don’t use a protected class as a reason for the termination, which would be a violation of that employee’s rights.

What if a dispute arises?

Unfortunately, you may let this employee go and then find that they are filing a lawsuit, alleging that they have been illegally terminated. Disputes like this do occur, even when employers attempt to follow the law properly. Make sure that you are well aware of all the legal options at your disposal by seeking legal guidance proactively under these circumstances.