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Managing termination disputes as a company, P.2

Last time, we began looking at the issue of at-will employment. As we noted, there are a number of potential exceptions to at-will employment. These exceptions exist at both the state and federal level, and employers need to have a strong understanding of these limitations in order to ensure they are in compliance with the law.

Two of the most important exceptions to at-will employment are discrimination and retaliation. Discrimination against protected classes such as race, sex, religion and national orientation is prohibited at both the state and federal level, and this means that employers may not terminate an employee based on such factors. When an employee is able to prove that termination was initiated based on illegal discrimination, the costs can be significant for a business. 

Employers are also prohibited from terminating an employee in a retaliatory manner. This means that an employee may not be fired for exercise his or her rights under the law, or for refusing to participate in activity that would violate the law. Protected employee activity includes filing internal complaints within a company, filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, reporting illegal activity to the police, participating in a discrimination investigation, and similar matters.

Another exception to at-will employment is whistle-blowing. Protections for whistle-blowing exist at both the state and federal level, but protections are not consistent across the board. Most states have protections for public sector employees, but private sector protection is more limited. At the federal level, protections are somewhat of a patchwork, so it is important for employers to understand their obligations.

In our next post, we’ll continue with this topic, and wrap up this discussion.

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