This is a common question that employees often ask. The situation is often something along these lines….
“I have been working for X company for Y number of years (generally more than three) and have always had good performance appraisals and no disciplinary action. Now, my supervisor is [harassing me, treating me unfairly, changing my job duties, or some other form of unwanted action] and I think I might be fired soon.”
As you may already know, South Carolina is an “at-will” employment state. This means that an employer can fire you for any reason in the world as long as it does not violate a federal or state law. An employer can even fire you for absolutely no reason at all. Now, sometimes employees have contracts with employers which changes things. If you have you have an employment contract with your employer, then you are most likely not an at-will employee. You should review any employment contract that you have in relation to your employment. If you do not have a contract with the company, generally your employer can fire you for a good reason, a bad reason, or absolutely no reason at all. While this may seem unfair or a bit one-sided, it is the very essence of at-will employment and the law of this state.
Alas, all is not lost. Employees do have some protections available under the law. It can be illegal employment action for your employer to fire you because of your gender (including pregnancy and sexual harassment), race, age, disability, use of FMLA leave, attempts to use FMLA leave, religion, national origin, or because you complained about discrimination on the basis of any of the above protected characteristics. Employers are also prohibited from terminating employees because they complained to them about overtime pay that was owed them, but has not been paid. South Carolina also recognizes a cause of action for wrongful termination if an employer fires an employee for complaining to the LLR for unpaid wages or for forcing an employee to break the law in order to keep his or her job.
You may want to ask yourself whether you believe that the unfair treatment that you are complaining about is due to any of the above categories. If the answer is yes and you have not been terminated yet, the next step is to complain in writing to your supervisor or your supervisor’s supervisor. Go all the way up the chain if you need to. If you have an employee handbook, it will likely provide information on the proper party to complain to and the proper method for filing a complaint with the company. A written complaint is typically a better method than a verbal complaint because it can be easily evidenced. You need to document the complaint in writing and keep a copy of the complaint for your own records. Once an employer gets a complaint of this nature, they typically have a legal duty to conduct a reasonable investigation into the allegations that form the basis of the complaint.
Employees are often fearful of what will happen to them if they complain about their employer’s treatment. Some fear repercussions at work if they complain. Federal employment laws were written with this legitimate fear of retaliation in mind and these laws prohibit employers from retaliating against you for complaining about discrimination or illegal employment actions. This can even be the case if you complain about discrimination that is being taken against another employer and not against you personally. Despite nearly every employee protection law containing a prohibition against retaliation against the complaining employee, this certainly does not mean that employers do not retaliate against complaining employees all of the time.
Often times you will also need to file a complaint, which is typically referred to as a “charge of discrimination”, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After you file a charge, the EEOC will investigate and attempt to I always prefer that clients contact me BEFORE they get terminated because I can help walk them through the steps of a written complaint and get the EEOC process started. If you have already been fired, however, do not fret – all is not lost. You can still file an EEOC complaint and should always speak with an attorney. Another important thing to remember is that if you are thinking of quitting or the company is asking for your resignation, this may prevent you from getting unemployment benefits. You should never quit or resign before speaking with an attorney first because this can greatly impact any potential case you might have. The internet has a great deal of information available about filing EEOC complaints and employment discrimination. The EEOC, the DOL, and the LLR all have quite informative websites, so you should be sure to check those out as well.