It is a sadly common misconception that ‘at-will’ employment, as is the norm in most states, means that employers have no accountability toward their employees. This is not the case: the right of at-will employment does not permit employers to act in illegal or unethical ways, at least not without repercussions.
Myth: An employer can fire an employee at any time, for any reason, without providing notice or information as to why.
Fact: This is technically correct. South Carolina state law does not prohibit terminating an employee abruptly or without telling them why, and federal law only requires informing the employee of the reason if they are covered by union rules. However, the important caveat missed by many is that there are reasons carved out of the law for which it is still unlawful (or at least unethical) to fire an employee. Wrongful termination is a recognized cause of action under state law, and the law is very clear about what specifically constitutes wrongful termination, so the charge is harder to avoid.
Myth: At-will means that factors such as anti-discrimination statutes do not come into play; the employer’s whim is law.
Fact: This is false. Anti-discrimination statutes and the rulings of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are usually first on the list of exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. It is never acceptable to terminate or otherwise disadvantage someone based on an immutable characteristic (something about themselves they cannot change, such as race, gender or national origin). There is a movement to include sexual orientation on the list of characteristics which are protected from discrimination, but as of this writing South Carolina has no law protecting the LGBTQ community in this manner.
Myth: If you were not terminated due to an immutable characteristic, you have no recourse against your employer.
Fact: Often, this is the case, but in rare situations there may be certain exceptions. The most common is under what politicians refer to as good public policy. Public policy is a term often used, but in this context, it is defined as policy that refrains from shocking the conscience of the general populace. To lose one’s position for something like, for example, reporting safety or health code violations to the proper authorities, would almost always be against public policy, since the public would be shocked if an employee was ‘rewarded’ for being conscientious with unemployment.
Myth: If you have no written proof of your status as a non-at-will employee, you have no recourse against your employer.
Fact: In many cases, this is untrue. South Carolina recognizes what are referred to as implied contracts, meaning that a contract can be created based on verbal assurances from an employer or actions on the employer’s part that may give rise to an expectation of employment. Proving the existence of an implied employment contract can be quite difficult, but it can be done.
Contact An Employment Law Attorney
Employment law is a confusing and difficult field to have to navigate, especially as a layman. Contacting an experienced employment lawyer in South Carolina can make a big difference. Attorney A. Christopher Potts has years of experience in getting South Carolinians good outcomes. Contact his Charleston employment law firm today to discuss your options.