Like many states, Illinois is an “at-will” employment state. In simple terms, at-will means that, unless there is a specific agreement in place, employment may be terminated by either the employer or employee at any time, without advance notice, and for almost any reason or no reason at all. Employment contracts, employee handbooks, and verbal promises may create exceptions to an at-will arrangement, and situations may still arise in which an employee was wrongfully terminated.
According to Illinois law, it is illegal to fire an employee on the basis of certain protected characteristics. Among others, such characteristics include race, religion, gender, nationality, and disability. In order to be considered a wrongful termination, however, the employee must be completely terminated from the company. Demotions or pay decreases based on illegal discrimination are not considered under Illinois labor laws. Instead, such cases may be investigated by the Illinois Department of Human Rights.
A wrongful termination suit may also be pursued if the firing violated public policy. Retaliatory termination for whistle-blowing or filing a good faith workers’ compensation claim are examples of public policy violations. Other public policies may not be so clearly defined and may be considered based on the individual circumstances of the case.
Employee handbooks and written employment agreements, including contracts, are often enforceable in a wrongful termination case and may take precedence over the standard at-will assumption. Terminations which violate the terms of an established agreement may therefore be considered wrongful as well. Employers utilizing written agreements of any kind are expected by law to fulfill the obligations set forth by these agreements, and since such documents are typically prepared by the employer, there is little reason not to abide by them.
When it becomes necessary to fire an employee, it is also important for an employer to accurately represent the reasons to the employee. Downplaying the true reasons, such as sub-standard work, dishonesty, or habitual tardiness, can inadvertently create the appearance of unlawful discrimination. While not required by law, it may also be in the employer’s best interest to keep written records of communications related to employee discipline and ultimate termination. Some business owners recommend having someone else review the records prior to firing the employee to ensure policies are being followed. In the event a wrongful termination suit is filed, a well-documented disciplinary process often provides a very strong defense.
If you are a business owner and are facing a lawsuit for wrongful termination, you need strong legal representation. Contact an experienced Illinois employment attorney at the Miller Law Firm, P.C. today. We will work with you and help ensure your business is afforded all the protections due under the law.