No, an employer generally does not need to tell an employee why he or she was fired. There is no law that requires an explanation. However, if there is an employment contract, the contract may require one. Many employers choose to give an explanation to forestall a future wrongful termination claim or to protect the company’s reputation.
Are employers legally required to explain a termination?
Employers are generally not legally required to explain to an employee why he or she is being discharged. They may be contractually required to provide an explanation, but only if the employment contract or collective bargaining agreement requires it. People who are in at-will employment are not entitled to this.
There are no federal laws that require employers to explain to the worker their decision to fire the employee. The closest the law comes to this requirement is the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN. This law requires employers that have more than 100 employees to provide them prior notice of mass layoffs or if a plant is closing.
The only state that requires employers to have a cause to fire someone is Montana. All other states presume that employment is at-will employment. This means that the employer can terminate the worker for any legal reason it wants.
However, for workers who are not at-will employees and have an employment contract, the terms of that contract may entitle them to an explanation. These employment contract terms are rare, though.
Why would an employer voluntarily offer an explanation?
Despite not being legally obligated to do so, many employers voluntarily tell former employees why they were discharged or laid off. They often do this to prevent a wrongful termination claim, or to maintain the company’s brand as a good place to work.
Companies that refuse to tell workers why they were terminated from their job tend to be seen as poor places to work. This can make it more difficult for the company to fill open positions. It may also deter good workers. Many employers try to avoid these perceptions by voluntarily telling workers what led to the termination.
A more likely reason for the explanation, though, is that it was made in anticipation of a potential wrongful termination claim.
Can the explanation impact a subsequent wrongful termination claim?
By offering a reason for the termination, employers can also impact a subsequent wrongful termination claim by the discharged worker. Not explaining the discharge looks suspicious and may make a former employee seek legal advice. Explaining the discharge with a legitimate reason forces the former employee to show that it is false, first. Only after overcoming the proffered reason for the termination can the former employee go on to prove that the termination was wrongful.
If an employer fires a worker and does not say why, many workers find that suspicious. Workers may wonder if they are not being told the reason because it was an unlawful termination. That can make them more likely to see an employment lawyer. This can make them more likely to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against their former employer. To avoid this chain of events, many employers voluntarily disclose the reason for the discharge.
By offering a legitimate reason for the termination, employers can make former workers overcome that explanation, first. This is often tricky. It will depend on the precise reason being offered by the employer. Employees may have to use:
- statements or emails between superiors that show there was an ulterior motive for the discharge,
- evidence that the employer made a new job offer after claiming that the prior worker was laid off, not fired,
- investigative steps described by company policy or the employee handbook that were not taken, or statements by coworkers, to show that a claim of harassment or discrimination were not the real reason for the discharge,
- client, customer, or performance reviews that show that work performance was not an issue, or
- time sheets to show that tardiness was not a factor or a reliable justification for the discharge.
The temporal proximity between the discharge and a potentially illegal reason for it can be strong evidence that the employer’s explanation is false. However, in many states, the discharge has to come very soon after the illegal reason for termination if there is no other evidence that the termination was wrongful.1
What is the law in California?
Under California’s employment law, there is no legal requirement for the employer to explain the discharge to a fired employee. California state law is one of the many where at-will employment is presumed. This means that employers to fire workers for any legal reason they want.
All employees, however, have some legal protections under California’s labor laws. Employers are not allowed to terminate someone for an unlawful reason. These include terminations that:
- violate an implied contract, or
- go against public policy because they are in retaliation for:
- exercising a right to vacation pay,
- exercising rights under California employee leave laws or the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA),
- filing a workers’ compensation claim,
- reporting sexual harassment or other workplace discrimination, like for sexual orientation, national origin, or marital status discrimination,
- engaging in protected whistleblower activities, or
- performing a legal obligation, like jury duty.
Many employers choose to tell fired workers why they were discharged in order to avoid a wrongful termination claim for one of these unlawful reasons. Like in other states, in California, it is up to the worker to show that the termination was unlawful.2 That includes showing that the specific reasons offered were false statements.
However, California courts find the circumstantial evidence of a short temporal proximity from illegal reason to discharge to be stronger than many other states. While some other states require additional evidence of a connection between the illegal reason and the termination, California does not.3
Bringing a wrongful termination claim against a previous employer is not easy, though. It always helps to have an employment attorney from a local law firm to legally represent you and to find evidence that you were wrongfully terminated.
- See, e.g., Harrison-Harper v. Nike Inc., No. 18-3297 (3d Cir. Oct. 11, 2019).
- Pugh v. See’s Candies, Inc., 116 Cal.App.3d 311 (1981).
- Bell v. Clackamas County, 341 F.3d 858, 865 (9th Cir. 2003) (“Temporal proximity between protected activity and an adverse employment action can by itself constitute sufficient circumstantial evidence of retaliation in some cases.”)