We all know that we sometimes need to be careful what we say at work, but when does an employer firing someone for expressing an opinion run afoul of the law?

The fact of the matter is that employers have fairly broad latitude for terminating or dismissing employees who are critical of employer policies or operations. However, under some circumstances, such criticisms may be protected speech. Punishing an employee for engaging in such expression may constitute retaliation or wrongful discharge under one or more federal, state, or local laws.

Like most states, New York is an employment-at-will state. This means, among other things, that your employer is free to fire you for criticizing the business or its personnel, whether publicly or privately. Many employees posting complaints about their employers on Facebook or other forums have found this out the hard way. However, recent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board have significantly limited this rule. In January of 2013, the NLRB ruled that discussions of work conditions between coworkers, even if done online, may be considered concerted activity under some circumstances and therefore protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

Additionally, various other statutes protect workers from retaliation for complaining to supervisors or outside regulators about discrimination and harassment, safety violations, rule violations, wage and hour violations or criminal conduct:

  • Civil Rights Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act
  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act
  • State and local wage and hour laws
  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act
  • New York State Private Sector Whistleblower Law
  • Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Family and Medical Leave Act
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

In conclusion, while you should always be careful what you say about your employer, you should never be afraid to speak up about work conditions, unsafe work practices, rule violations, employment discrimination, sexual harassment, or violations of employment law.