Losing your job because the company you work for can't seem to get out of the red or because sales are down and staff needs to be cut is difficult. But, when you believe your termination is the result of unfair employment practices, the wide range of emotions you experience can range from anger to zealous determination to get your job back. Getting your job back may require a series of steps, beginning with the actual termination. Unless you have clear, convincing and irrefutable evidence that you were unlawfully terminated and that you deserve to be reinstated, the process could take well over a year.
Listen carefully during the termination meeting with the human resources leader and your manager and take copious notes. Don't be reluctant to probe for the exact reasons why the company decided to dismiss you. Also, ask for documentation that supports the employer's decision. Before the end of the termination meeting, request copies of the employer's documentation and a complete copy of your employment file. If the HR staffer or your manager hesitates about providing documentation, indicate their reluctance in your notes.
Before you leave the meeting and if you are reasonably calm enough to ask for further clarification, ask whether you're eligible for rehire. Inquire about the type of reference the company will provide to future prospective employers and how many other employees are affected by the company's decision. For example, you could ask, "This reduction in force -- is it happening only in my department, or are employees in other business units subject to the RIF as well?" Questions such as these clarify the employer's decision or, even better, clarify that you may have indeed been subject to unlawful termination.
Employment at Will
Most private employers in the U.S. subscribe to the employment-at-will doctrine, which means the company can end the working relationship at any time, for any reason or for no reason, with or without advance notice. Many companies include an employment-at-will disclaimer on employment applications and in their employee handbooks. Chances are that you're an at-will employee if you aren't a union worker who is protected by a labor union contract or if you are an employee with any other type of employment agreement or contract that specifies the conditions for terminating the contract. Information about the employment-at-will doctrine is available online through a number of employment-related websites, such as the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and your own state's labor department. If you are an at-will employee and your employer simply decided to end the working arrangement, the termination may not have been unlawful. However, you don't know that yet, so learn more about the employment-at-will doctrine and your workplace rights through reading your handbook and online resources containing labor and employment laws and information.
Study your federal and state employment laws to determine whether a basis exists for unlawful termination. For example, if your employer's termination coincides with your request for an accommodation for a disability, you could have a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Likewise, if the termination appears to be based on nonjob-related reasons, such as gender, race, marital status or national origin, explore whether the company's documentation reflects an unlawful decision to terminate you. While the documentation may not directly infer or even imply that your termination was unlawful, it might provide you with enough information that you can use, together with your understanding of your employment rights, to deduce whether you have been unlawfully terminated. Unless you are a lawyer or have legal training, consult a lawyer or someone with knowledge of employment law and employee rights before asserting unlawful or illegal actions against your former employer.
Federal and State Agencies
You have the right to seek legal counsel from an attorney, but you can also go directly to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC enforces federal anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Employees who believe they have been unlawfully terminated can file a charge of discrimination, provided they do so within a 180 days of the adverse employment action or within 300 days of an unlawful act if there's a companion state law. The EEOC will conduct an investigation on your behalf and seek remedies if the agency has reason to believe that your termination was unlawful. When you visit with an EEOC officer or an attorney, stress that you want your job back. In addition to reinstatement, you may be entitled to back pay from the date you were fired until the date you return to work, if that is the ultimate resolution. However, talk to the EEOC officer about additional types of redress that may be available to you, such as being promoted to a position for which you were qualified, but were terminated from the company instead. Also, if the EEOC finds that there exists reasonable cause for a determination that the employer engaged in unlawful or discriminatory actions, EEOC agency lawyers may pursue legal action against the company. They won't be your private legal counsel, but they will pursue an employer's unlawful actions based on their enforcement authority.
As you contemplate your EEOC charge or attorney-client meetings, seriously consider the reasons you want to go back to the company that fired you. It might not seem like it at the time, but terminations often have a way of shedding light on unfair employment practices that call into question the company's ethics. Do you really want to work for a company that engaged in unlawful activity by terminating you and caused the anguish and distress to seek reinstatement? This is an ideal time to examine your own business principles and ethics to determine whether they are still aligned with those of your previous employer.