Some employees are members of legally-protected classes. As defined by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, these classifications are defined by certain immutable characteristics, including one’s religion, sex, race, national origin, gender identity, disability, age, genetics, etc.
It’s important for employers to know that these classes exist because it certainly can influence how a termination can or cannot lawfully proceed. But it’s problematic to think that these protected classes influence which employees you can fire. Instead, think of it as a guideline for why you can lawfully fire members of protected classes, not whether you’re allowed to fire members of protected classes under any circumstances.
Protected classifications cannot be the basis of a termination
Some employers believe they simply can’t fire employees who are in protected classes. They view these protections as a direct protection against termination itself. If they have an employee who is over 40 years old, for instance, they may lament that they can’t fire that person without being accused of age discrimination. But this is an incorrect view of how protected classes work. What it actually means is that you can’t fire someone because they are 40 years old or older.
You certainly can fire a worker who fits into that age category. Maybe your company is downsizing and you simply have to let people go, whether you want to or not. Maybe a certain worker is always late for work or you’ve seen their production slipping. There are a multitude of very reasonable issues that you may cite to show why a firing is justified.
What you can’t do is simply decide that you’re going to fire someone because of their age, their race or other protected factors concerning who they are. When employees believe that they’ve been fired because they’re in a protected class, that’s when they may (perhaps rightfully) decide to sue your company for a wrongful termination.
What options do you have?
Unfortunately, you may know that you had a valid reason to let someone go, but they may allege that you have discriminated against them or illegally fired them. If you find yourself in this position, be sure you know exactly what legal options you have to defend your company’s interests. Simply because you have fired someone who belongs to a protected class does not mean that you have necessarily broken the law. Seeking legal guidance before or after firing someone is advised, whenever you have questions or concerns about your company’s rights and options under the law.