So many employers nowadays are so afraid of getting sued that they would rather keep poor employees than terminate the relationship. I get so many questions from employers about this very topic – can I fire my employee for coming in late? Can he sue me for wrongful termination? What if he does anyhow?
The truth of the matter is that in California, unless there is a written employment contract governing the terms of the employment, the employment relationship is “at-will.” That means that either the employer or the employee can terminate the employment relationship at any given time, without reason. In fact, most employers and employees think that California law requires employees give a two-week notice period prior to leaving their job. Although this is courteous on the part of the employee, it is not required.
However, there are exceptions to the at-will employment relationship. If an employee can prove that any one of the exceptions apply, they may be able to sue the employer for wrongful termination, and possibly win. Here are just a few of the most prominent exceptions applied in California:
1. The public policy exception – an employee has a claim for wrongful termination against his or her employer if the termination is against a clear and well-established California public policy. For instance, in California, an employer cannot fire an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim after being injured on the job. Another example of a violation of public policy is that an employer cannot terminate an employee for refusing to break the law at the request of the employer. Other public policy violations include evidence of discrimination, harassment, and violations of the Family Medical Leave Act.
2. The implied-contract exception – sometimes, courts will find an implied employment contract even when no written contract exists. For instance, some courts have interpreted employee handbooks that make certain promises and representations to be implied contracts. This is why it is extremely important to have a provision in the employee handbook that explicitly states that the handbook should not be construed as a contract and that the employment relationship is an at-will relationship.
3. The implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing - California courts have ruled that every employment contract carries with it an implied covenant that neither the employer nor the employee will stop the other from receiving the benefits of the employment relationship. In deciding whether such a covenant can be assumed, the court considers several factors, including whether the company properly followed its stated personnel policies, the length of the person’s employment, any job security assurances that may have been made, a presence or lack of prior criticism of performance, and basic notions of fairness.