Many people believe that because Iowa is an at-will state,employees have no rights and can be terminated for any reason at all. Luckily, this is not true.
Iowa is commonly referred to as an “at-will state,” which means that unless an employment contract details the duration of the employment relationship and/or under what circumstances an employee can be fired (for example- “good cause”), an employer can pretty much come up with any reason it wants to terminate an employee. This is so even if the reason is for bad cause or no cause at all. To illustrate- an employer can terminate an employee because he doesn’t agree with the employee’s taste in music or, perhaps more realistically, an employer can terminate an employee the first time the employee shows up late for work, even if it only happened once. Furthermore, an employer generally doesn’t even have to tell an employee why they are being terminated or provide any set notice of termination.
Even though Iowa’s status as an at-will state means that employers have great latitude when choosing who to hire and who to fire, the Iowa General Assembly, Congress and the courts have restricted an employer’s discretion in important ways in order to protect employees from unlawful discrimination and/or retaliation.
State and federal laws make it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee (or applicant) based on certain personal characteristics of the employee/applicant, including the employee/applicant’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, sexual identity and disability. What this means is that it is illegal for an employer to fail to hire, terminate, treat differently or harass an employee based on the employee’s protected characteristic. For example, it is illegal for an employer not to hire an applicant because the applicant is black or because the applicant is a female. It is illegal for an employer to pay a male employee more than a similarly situated female. It is also illegal for an employee to be sexually harassed by her coworkers or supervisors.
The Iowa Supreme Court has also protected employees by ruling that it is illegal for an employer to terminate an employee if the the termination would frustrate a well-recognized public policy. Essentially what this means is that an employer cannot terminate an employee if the employer terminates the employee after the employee was simply exercising his rights. For example, it is illegal for an employer to terminate an employee who misses work due to jury duty. Similarly, an employer cannot terminate an employee who sought workers compensation benefits for an on-the-job injury. Additionally, statutes prohibit an employee from facing discrimination or being terminated after the employee complained about unlawful discrimination or harassment.
It is important for employees to know their rights as employees. Every employee in Iowa has a right to work in a discrimination-free environment. Work is hard enough without having to deal with stereotypes, bias, sexual harassment and/or different treatment based on a personal characteristic.