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According to California’s Labor Code, employees are generally considered to be employed at-will. This means that both the employer and the employee have the right to terminate the employer-employee relationship if they see fit. In other words, an employee can quit their job at any time and for any reason and an employer can fire an employee at any time for any lawful reason. However, employers need to be careful when it comes to terminating an employee, as a disgruntled employee may allege they were terminated for unlawful reasons and file a wrongful termination claim against their employer.

What is considered a lawful reason for termination?

Because California is an at-will state, almost anything could constitute a lawful reason for termination. Common lawful reasons for terminating an employee include:

  • Frequent tardiness or absences
  • Poor work performance
  • Insubordination
  • Poor fit or personality issues
  • Criminal activity (e.g. theft of company property, assault of fellow employee)
  • Failing to adhere to company policy
  • Falsifying records or timesheets

What are some illegal reasons for termination?

While most reasons for termination are legal, there are some illegal reasons to terminate an employee. Some of these reasons include termination for:

  • Discrimination – An employer may not terminate an employee based on their membership in a legally protected class (e.g. age, gender, race, religion).
  • Retaliation – If an employee filed a workers’ compensation claim or acted as a whistleblower by reporting criminal activity in the workplace, an employer may not retaliate against them by terminating their employment.
  • Sexual harassment – Employers may not fire an employee as a way to sexually harass them.
  • Discussing workplace conditions – Employers cannot fire employees for discussing ways to improve workplace conditions with other employees, as this is ‘protected concerted activity.’
  • Reasons violating employment contract – If an employee signed an employment contract that specified that they must be terminated ‘for cause,’ the employer must have a valid reason for firing the employee that fits the criteria of the contract, assuming the contract is enforceable.

To protect your business, you must make sure that you have legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for terminating an employee. A labor and employment law attorney in your area can help prove that your reasons for termination were legal.