As in many other states, employment in Pennsylvania is generally at will. This means that, in the absence of a contract stating otherwise, an employer may fire an employee for any reason, and an employee may quit for any reason.
However, the law also provides certain exceptions to this broad rule. Under some circumstances, terminated employees may have a cause of action against their employers for wrongful discharge. Understanding this concept can help you protect your company from llitigation and other problems. An experienced attorney can help you create policies that comply with the law and safeguard your business.
Common situations for wrongful discharge allegations
In some situations, you need to be very careful about handling a termination to avoid accusations of wrongful discharge. These typically include firing an employee who is in the process of dealing with a workers' compensation claim, an employee who has filed a complaint with the EEOC or otherwise acted as a whistleblower, or an employee who has raised concerns about discrimination as a member of a protected class.
When you need to fire a potentially protected employee
Does this mean an employee can file a complaint and now has complete protection against firing? Of course not. However, if this is the case, you need to be extra careful to make clear that the reason for the termination has no relation to the employee's complaint or belonging to a protected class. While the law does not want to enable employers to simply get rid of employees exercising protected rights, it also does not want to restrict the employer's right to fire an employee as part of a sound business decision.
Documenting objective grounds for termination
The best way to handle such a situation is to have an objective reason for why it makes sense to terminate an employee. The more specific your reason, the better. Thus, rather than stating a worker was not a good team player, document instances where the worker failed to follow policy or created problems at work. It is a good idea to have a written official policy for employee discipline and termination that includes proper documentation of each step.