Employment Law FAQs
Q: What is employment at will in New Jersey?
A: If you are employed “at will” it means that you can be fired at any time and for any reason as long as it is not an illegal reason. The flip side of the coin is that you are free to quit your job at any time. Illegal reasons will usually be things like unlawful discrimination on the basis of gender, age, race, disability and other things that are prohibited by statute. If you don't have an employment contract, then you're employed at will. And most of us don't have a contract (union employees do have a contract by the way, the collective bargaining agreement.) So the large majority of employees in NJ are at will.
Q: What if I think I'm being discriminated against because of my age?
A: Age discrimination is illegal under both federal and NJ state law. If you're 40 years old or older, well, we hate to break it to you, but in the eyes of the law you're “older.” If you fall into the 40+ demographic, lose your job or are demoted, and are replaced by someone who is substantially younger, you may have a claim against the employer for age discrimination. This is not something to engage in self-help on. Get experienced legal help if you think this is happening to you.
Q: I think I'm about to be fired. Should I resign before it happens?
A: There‘s a short answer to this one: No! It's almost never a good idea to quit because you feel you're being mistreated or are about to be fired. Quit and you have just given away a good portion of your legal rights and ability to obtain justice. In particular, do not fall for the old ruse that “we'll allow you to resign by X date so you won't have being fired on your record.” They're toying with you. You will gain nothing financially, nor in terms of your HR record or reputation, by doing this. If they want you to leave, make them fire you. As soon as they offer you this “choice,” call a lawyer to ensure that your rights are protected.
Q: I think I'm about to be fired. Now what do I do?
A: This will be a particularly stressful time for you. Nonetheless, you need to keep your wits about you. There are several things you need to do.
1. If you're called in to meet with your boss or HR, and you suspect that you're about to be terminated, be polite and professional.
2. If you can, take complete notes to document what is said and take them with you. If you can't take notes right then, make it the first priority to write everything down as soon as you can. That means within hours, not days, while things are still fresh in your memory.
3. If you think that you're being fired for an unlawful reason, such as illegal discrimination, tell them about it right then and there. You shouldn't argue about it, but get it on the table.
4. Do not sign anything without having it reviewed first by an attorney, unless you're merely acknowledging receipt of the document (and sometimes even that is not a good idea).
5. If you're offered a severance agreement you will probably have 21 days (sometimes 45) to get it reviewed, sign it, or try to negotiate a better deal. You need to move fast. Find a qualified employment lawyer and set up an appointment to discuss the situation promptly. While we love to hear from people who need help, our biggest frustration is with folks who call and say "I got a severance offer and I need to sign by tomorrow." There's often nothing a lawyer can do to help in that situation. You have effectively painted yourself into a corner. So please, if you take nothing else from this FAQ, make it a point to seek legal help right away if you think you want it.
Q: If I hire an attorney will my employer renege on my severance offer?
A: No, they won't. In fact, in the case of older (40+) employees, federal law requires them to advise you, right in the separation agreement, that you should have the agreement reviewed by legal counsel. They expect it. Just do it. There's a lot more to these agreements than just how many dollars in severance pay you will receive. They can affect benefits, side agreements that could affect your ability to get new work in your industry, and other items important to your well-being and future prospects.