The Myth of Good Cause

“My employer fired me today without good cause and it’s just not fair.” I get this call in my office a lot. Unfortunately, 99% of the time, I have to respond with rather bad news for the distraught employee. Good cause does not apply in the common employment context, which is that of the at-will private sector employee. Public sector employees often benefit from the good cause termination standard and frequently, so will those with collective bargaining agreements or employment contracts, but the latter are few and far between.

If none of the foregoing situations apply to you, it is highly likely that you can be fired without good cause, or for any reason at all really, unless it is for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons. This means that when your employer terminates your employment after 5 dedicated years of service because you didn’t complete a particular project on time, even though it was not time sensitive and others before you had done the same as you, you may be out of luck. This also means that if your employer doesn’t like the way you dress at work, even though there isn’t anything particularly inappropriate about it, you could still be justifiably fired without recourse. And yes, when you get fired for not being a team player after complaining about your boss, who happens to be a real workplace bully, there isn’t much you can do.

“But wasn’t I wrongfully terminated?” While California is one of the few states that allows an aggrieved employee to bring a claim for wrongful termination, this cause of action is a very specific one based on violations of public policy. Generally speaking, a wrongful termination claim will only result from firing someone for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons. For instance, if someone is fired because he “came out” to his co-workers, or she made a complaint about safety concerns at the worksite, this would rise to the level of wrongful termination.

Often, when an employee is let go, the employer will offer some type of severance in exchange for a waiver of rights a.k.a. a release. Although, you are probably more concerned at this point about how to make your rent this month, it is a bad idea to sign away your rights for a week or two of pay without protecting yourself. This offer may not be as generous as it seems and instead intended to take advantage of your vulnerability. In short, if you are unsure whether you have been wrongfully terminated, be sure to get a free consultation from an attorney to help you determine your rights. In the meantime, keep an eye open at work for anything that raises an eyebrow and remember, just because it’s unfair, doesn’t mean it’s illegal.