Can I be fired without warning for showing up late to work?

Question: I was about 15 minutes late to work last week and my boss fired me. I had never been late before and have never had any trouble there. I thought your employer has to give you a written warning before they fire you?

Answer: Alabama follows the “Employment at Will” doctrine which simply means that in almost all circumstances your employer can fire you at any time for any reason.  When most people learn about the “Employment at Will Doctrine” they usually think that it is a little harsh but the logic behind the doctrine is simple.  If your employer has the right to fire you ant any time for any reason then you also have the right to quit your job at any time for any reason.  So don’t look at the “Employment at Will” as an evil doctrine that your boss can use to get rid of you, look at it as an extension of your civil liberties— you have the right to leave a job whenever the working conditions are less than desirable.

In your particular case I’m not sure that I would want to work at a place where my boss would fire me for being fifteen minutes late without a warning anyway.  I suspect there was some underlying issue but we may never know what it was.  You need to look at this as an opportunity to find a new job where your employer values you as an employee.  Being an employer and a boss myself I am sometimes willing to overlook small indiscretions like being late to work now and then if I really value an employee and I know that they are putting their hearts into their work.  However, I catch myself being a little less forgiving with employees who aren’t putting forth as much effort.

That brings up another interesting legal issue.  Some people might say that it is “discrimination” to treat any employee different from another for any reason.  However, the law is very specific about what type of conduct constitutes “discrimination” and about who “discrimination” can apply to.  Treating an employee differently just because that employee works harder than another employee or penalizing a less productive employee based upon job performance and work ethic alone is not discrimination.  If your boss gives one of your co-workers who has been on the job less time than you a raise simply because your boss thinks your co-worker is a harder worker than you, that is not discrimination no matter what your age, gender, or race.

Discrimination is when minority employees are treated differently solely based upon their age, race, gender, national origin, religion, disability, or on-the-job injury.   In 1965 the United States Congress passed a Civil Rights Act making it illegal to discriminate against minorities.  Therefore, if it is illegal to discriminate against someone simply because of their gender or the color of their skin then that creates certain exceptions to the “Employment at Will” doctrine that we have been discussing.  So after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 your employer can still fire you for any reason except: your gender, your race, your age, your national origin, your religious beliefs, a disability, or an on-the-job injury.  However, your boss can still fire you for being 15 minutes late even if you’re a woman as long as your boss wasn’t  really trying to get rid of you simply because you are a woman.  You can probably see where the true motive of an employer might come into question in situations like this.

It is interesting to note that The Civil Rights Act of 1965 only applies to discrimination against minorities so by definition it is legally impossible to discriminate against a man based upon gender because men make up the majority of the work force in the United States.    If you’re a white Protestant man and you were fired because you were fifteen minutes late to work then you can stop right there.  You don’t need to even consider whether your boss may have had another motive for firing you because by definition it is legally impossible to discriminate against someone who is in the racial, gender, and religious majority.

As far as the fact that your boss didn’t give you a written warning goes, there is no law that requires a written warning before a termination.  However, if there is a written disciplinary policy and your boss failed to follow that policy you may be able to claim that the policy created a contract that your boss breached by not following it.  If you apply for Unemployment Compensation the question of whether you had been previously warned about being late may become an issue.  In order to qualify for Unemployment Compensation you must be physically able to work, you must be actively seeking employment, and you can’t have been fired for conduct inconsistent with your former employer’s policies after having been previously warned about that conduct.

As with almost all areas of the law, Employment Law is not black and white and if you have a question about your particular situation you should always consult a lawyer.  Most lawyers who practice in the area of employment law, including myself, are more than happy to speak with you on the telephone or offer a free office consultation.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,