Pennsylvania is an “at-will” state. I recently let a terrible employee go and was surprised to find out she filed a complaint against me for wrongful termination. Do I need to worry about this?
– Chef, Philadelphia, PA
Maybe. It is important to remember that whether the termination was justified or not, anyone can sue over anything—it just may not go anywhere.
In an at-will state, an employee can be fired for any reason, with or without cause, and with or without notice. That said, there are state and federal exceptions that would supersede this ability. The legal phrase is you can fire someone for any reason but not for the wrong reason. For example, since your employee is a woman, she is in a protected class. If she can show that her termination was on the basis of her sex, religion, age, national origin, disability, race or, in some states, sexuality, she would have a strong case. Similarly, if your employee manual outlines a three strikes and you’re out warning system, but you didn’t follow that process, she could have a case. There are a few other examples where an employee would be justified in claiming wrongful termination such as being terminated for union organizing activity or for refusing to carry out an assigned task that is illegal. An example of this last provision would be if a manager asks a bartender to serve a minor a drink and the bartender refuses, he could not be terminated on that basis. Of course, the manager should be!
Even though it may not be required, it is a good idea to maintain thorough documentation of all performance problems for all employees so that if, in fact, a terminated employee pursues legal action or files a complaint with the state department of labor, you can point to some justification that the termination was performance related without relying on reconstructing problems from memory. Further, consult with your attorney to include clear language in your employee manual regarding the at-will nature of the job and the process for termination.
Tools for firing here.