Can an Employer Fire You Over Pending Charges?

Some states protect workers from being fired over pending charges.
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If you've had a recent run-in with the law and there's now an arrest marring your criminal record, it's natural to worry that your pending charges will put your job on the line. While an arrest is not the same as a conviction and you're innocent until proven guilty, some employers are quick to judge -- and terminate -- employees for legal mistakes made in their downtime. Depending on where you live, your boss might have every right to fire you over pending charges, but this isn't always the case.

The Law

    Laws regarding arrests and employment vary significantly from one state to another. In many states, employment is entirely at-will unless a company contract has been signed, meaning an employer can fire you at any time for any reason that isn't illegal. Illegal reasons include discrimination based on race, sex, disability or age, but this does not apply to criminal activity. In some states, such as California, employers aren't allowed to weigh arrests that have not led to convictions while making hiring or firing decisions. California allows employers to ask about arrests and the circumstances surrounding them, but they can't terminate employees based on the information they uncover. Other states bar employers from asking about arrests entirely. To find out what your state-specific rights are, consult with your attorney.

Disclosing Pending Charges

    If your charges are expected to go to trial, you'll have a hard time keeping them hidden from your employer. It may be difficult to make provide excuses to cover why you need time off for meetings with your lawyer, court hearings and potential sentencing. There's also the risk that your boss routinely runs background checks on employees, and she find out while taking a peek at your history. It's always best to tell your boss about your arrest and pending charges before she finds out from someone else. It looks better on your character, and gives you the chance to tell your side of the story and defend your position. While it may be scary, it's essential if you want to keep your job intact when you're employed at-will.

Termination of Employment

    If you live in a state with at-will employment, your boss has every right to fire you over pending charges and, unfortunately, there isn't much you can do about it. If you live in California or another state that protects against termination due to arrests, consult with your attorney and see what legal action you can take. It's also important to be aware that your boss might not terminate you now, but will if your charges lead to a conviction.

Tips and Considerations

    If you're worried that you'll be convicted and lose your job in the future, consider clearing the air with your boss before that happens. Ask if she foresees your job remaining secure if you're convicted. Be professional and calm when talking to your boss about your charges. Reassure her that you're still the hard-working, trustworthy employee she hired. A little reassurance can go a long way in helping you stay in your job and out of the unemployment line.

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