In the United States, most workers are employed “at will,” meaning that an employer can terminate their employment at any time for any reason. However, there are some circumstances under which firing an employee is illegal. Both federal and state statutes bar employers from relying on factors such as race, religion, alien status, or safety complaints as the basis for firing an employee. 

This blog post explores just some of the circumstances under which letting an employee go would be in violation of state or federal law. For information on how to handle a specific case, we encourage you to contact an experienced employment defense attorney.


It should come as no surprise that it is illegal to fire an employee based on his or her race, gender, national origin, disability, religion, or age. And by now, you likely also know that it is also illegal to fire an employee based on a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth. Letting go of an employee for any of these reasons is considered discrimination, and is in direct violation of federal law.

However, many states have also enacted anti-discrimination laws that prohibit employers from firing employees for any of the factors listed above. In fact, state law may actually cover a broader range of personal characteristics, such as sexual orientation or marital status.

If you are an employer under scrutiny for a recent fire, it is important to know all of the factors under which letting an employee go can be construed as discrimination. And, if you are already under scrutiny for a recent fire, you should consult with an experienced employment law attorney to create the best possible defense against a civil lawsuit.


Has an employee of yours ever asserted their rights under state of federal anti-discrimination laws as described above? Remove that employee from the payroll could result in a retaliation claim against the your business - even if his or her discrimination claim has no merit.

Consider the following illustration. An employee comes to you with a complaint that he or she was denied a promotion based on his or her gender. In turn, you fire that employee. Even if you were to successfully defend the company’s actions against the discrimination claim, you could still lose a retaliation lawsuit.

In either case, it is critical to work with an employment law attorney that understands the nuances of anti-discrimination laws to ensure your conduct is lawful and does not run afoul of state and federal law.

Complaining About OSHA Violations

In addition to anti-discrimination laws, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, or OSHA, prohibits employers from firing an employee who raises concerns about working conditions. For example, an employee who reports that his or her working conditions do not meet federal health and safety rules cannot be fired for doing so. The law is designed to protect employees who raise awareness of safety violations, ensuring that safety concerns are properly addressed and not swept to the side.

Citizenship Status

Employers are barred from terminating employees based on their citizenship status or place of birth. Firing someone based on their nationality is a violation of anti-discrimination laws and the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act, or IRCA. The Act prohibits an employer from using an employee’s alien status as a reason for firing them. That is, however, as long as the employee is able to work legally in the United States.

Violations of Public Policy

In most states, employers cannot fire an employee for refusing to commit an act that is in violation of public policy, i.e. conduct that society deems morally or ethically wrong. Examples include terminating an employee for refusing to commit an illegal act, for complaining about an employer’s illegal conduct, and for exercising a legal right.

What is permissible in one state may be prohibited in another, which is why it is important to consult with an employment lawyer prior to taking an action that could be in violation of state-level employment laws.

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