Can an Employer Fire You & Not Fire Someone Else if You Did the Same Thing?

Employers can terminate employees with or without reason under at-will employment.

Employers can terminate employees with or without reason under at-will employment.

Employment law is governed by federal regulations set forth by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). States can also set their own standards, including at-will employment which allows employers and employees to terminate the employment relationship for a variety of reasons. Because of these at-will employment laws, an employer can fire one employee and not the other, even if the infraction was the same for both employees. Of course, there are other factors to take into consideration, but the employer does have the right to fire and hire employees at will with or without cause.

Fairness in Employment

The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for keeping employment actions and treatment of employees fair and non-discriminatory. In cases of employee terminations, when one employee is targeted for committing the same act as another employee, yet only one employee is terminated, the employer is protected by at-will employment. However, fairness in employment does open the employer for liability if the employee who was terminated claims discrimination as a reason for the termination. Under the EEOC regulations, it is "illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information." For instance, If the terminated employee is over the age of 40, and the still-employed employee is not, there is a potential for discrimination lawsuit against the employer.

Termination of Employees At Will

According to the Small Business Administration, all states except for Montana give employers the option to operate under the employment at-will doctrine. Employment at-will means that both the employer and the employee have the right to terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without reason. In a case where one employee is terminated and another is not, and they are both found to have committed the same act against the employer, employment at-will allows the employer to decide whom to terminate. Furthermore, the employer is not required to give any reason for the termination of an employee.

Ethics in Termination - It is Legal, But Is It Fair?

It is legal to terminate one employee and not the other for a similar action, but is it fair? This is where the question of discrimination comes into play for several employers found to be in this type of employment action. It is illegal to fire an employee for reasons that are defined as discriminatory by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which are identified by the EEOC as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, or genetic information. But, it can also be viewed as unfair by the former employee if he or she is terminated with or without reason. Unfortunately, employers are not held to a "fair standard" in terms of what the employee may deem as reasonably fair or unfair. The employer is only held to the federal and state regulations of discriminatory employment practices and fair labor standards in doing business. The interpretation of what the former employee defines as fair or unfair does not play a role in the determination of whether or not an employment action is legal.

Factors to Consider in Terminating Employees for Cause

When terminating employees for a specific reason, employers must be cautious of the documentation that is provided to an employee at the time of termination. Employers are held responsible for any documentation that is given to the employee at the time of termination. One important factor to consider from an employer's perspective is that less is more. With the at-will employment laws in effect, employers are not required to provide a reason, and therefore, are best served by not providing extensive documentation or reasons behind the employment action. A simple document stating the date of termination and the action itself is in the best interest of the employer. For instance, "Employment with Company X is terminated effective immediately," is a simple template to follow for all termination documentation between an employer and employee.

 

About the Author

Jennifer Burton is a human resources professional based in California. She holds an M.A. in American studies from California State University, Fullerton.

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