James Damore was fired from Google after outcries related to an essay he wrote, an opinion piece about “cultural taboos” and gender diversity.
A New Orleans construction worker was fired for driving a company truck fast enough through flooded streets that his wake sent water crashing against houses and parked cars.
A worker at a popular hot dog restaurant in Berkeley was fired when Twitter posts revealed that he attended the white supremacy rally in Virginia.
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So went the news reports in recent days – repeated evidence that what you do or say can be grounds for job dismissal, sometimes even if your words or action are unrelated to your job.
Federal government workers have been granted certain free speech rights. Labor union members have some job protections. Most American workers don’t.
Most of us are “at will” employees who can be fired for any reason … or no particular reason at all.
Suppose you made a political donation to a candidate or a cause. Suppose you thought that was a private matter. Suppose your employer found out about it through public records and didn’t like your choice. If he or she wants to let you go because of that, they may have clear sailing. And you may never be told the real reason.
Some states have laws to help protect workers from being disciplined for political activities outside of work. That includes California, so the hot dog guy might have legal recourse if he was, indeed, fired and if he chooses to fight back.
But the lesson for most workers is that most private-sector employers have broad powers to dismiss employees simply because they don’t want someone in their organizations who hold views they disagree with.
What about the First Amendment and free speech rights? Those protect Americans from government actions and don’t necessarily apply in the private workplace.
What about the Civil Rights Act and protections against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin? Those protections may not apply in some private settings, either.
Sometimes it comes down to whose lawyer makes a more convincing argument in court about the real reason behind a firing.
There are legal recourses for workers who believe they were fired for such reasons as whistleblowing about a wrongdoing or getting pregnant. But fighting those cases can be time-consuming, expensive and emotionally wrenching.
The bottom line is that workers are fired every day for reasons unrelated to actual job performance. Good people are let go because of their salary levels, their age or perceived attitudes, and none of those truths need ever be stated when the pink slips are handed out.
It doesn’t hurt to mention, too, that no law requires an employer to allow you to continue working after you’ve indicated that you plan to quit. You may be shown the door immediately. Concepts such as two-weeks’ notice are courtesies, not requirements.