In Massachusetts, as in many other states, employment is considered “at will,” unless you have an employment contract that says something different. What that means is that either the employer or the employee can end the relationship at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all. It can be fair or unfair, carefully considered or impulsive. EXCEPT: An employer cannot discriminate based on certain characteristics that are called “protected classes,” and cannot retaliate against an employee for exercising a legally protected right.
It is important to know that Massachusetts state law protects a broader group of people than the Federal anti-discrimination law does. Below are the "protected classes" recognized by Massachusetts and/or federal law:
Protected Classes under Federal and Massachusetts Law:
Additional Classes Protected under Massachusetts Law:
It is also unlawful to fire an employee in retaliation for making a complaint about discrimination or sexual harassment, even if the complaint itself was unfounded.
This does not mean an employee in a protected class can never be fired or disciplined. What it does mean is that employers should be thoughtful and consistent in their disciplinary and firing decisions, not because the law requires thoughtfulness and consistency but because, in their absence, an employee -and ultimately a judge or jury- could conclude that the reason for the employer's action was that person's membership in a protected class.
Some examples from cases we have handled:
An employee with a medical disability was fired. The company had a robust performance evaluation system, based on both objective criteria and subjective evaluation comments, which documented a prolonged period of dissatisfaction with the employee’s performance. Though she was in a protected class (disability), the court found there was no evidence of discrimination, so the company had no liability.
A female sales representative was fired for not meeting specific sales goals on a performance improvement plan. Though there was objective evidence that she fell short of expectations, she was the only female sales person in the group, and the improvement plan itself set goals that were higher and more unachievable than the goals set for her male colleagues. The employer ultimately settled a claim of gender discrimination with her.