What Is Employment Law?

Employment law covers employee rights, requirements and protections. It covers things like pay regulations; restrictions on employees’ ability to talk about their employers (known as restrictive covenants); and the laws against discrimination based on race, religion, sex, age or national origin.


For example, when deciding which workers to lay off, an employer cannot choose the oldest employees. It is also illegal to provide false or negative references.

At-will employment

Employment at will is the default status for employees in most states, and it means that employers can terminate working relationships at any time without notice or negative consequences. This differs from contract employment, which usually involves specific terms of duration and job requirements that must be met before termination. It also does not allow for the guarantee of benefits, such as health insurance, provided in an employment contract.

However, some exceptions exist to at-will employment. For instance, the law prohibits firing an employee for reasons that violate federal and state laws regarding discrimination or harassment in the workplace (see Nolo’s article Discrimination in the Workplace), as well as retaliating against workers who report illegal or unethical behavior by an employer. Additionally, it is against public policy to fire an employee for exercising a number of legal rights, such as taking time off to vote or serve on a jury.

Despite these exceptions, it is important to realize that at-will employment still provides less stability than other types of employment. For example, if an employer promises a certain length of employment, courts will disregard this promise as an oral assurance rather than a legally enforceable contractual agreement. Furthermore, in many cases, employees are not given written notice that their employment is at will or an explicit disclaimer in the company’s policies and procedures manual. This can create confusion and mislead an employee about their legal rights.

Discrimination in the workplace

Workplace discrimination negatively affects significant numbers of people each year. It also costs companies money in lost productivity, says Jennica Webster, Ph.D., an instructor in the Marquette online Master of Management program. Employment laws aim to protect employees from discriminatory actions by employers and co-workers.

For example, it’s illegal for employers to make employment decisions based on a person’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation and pregnancy), age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It’s also against the law for an employer to provide different treatment or benefits to an employee based on these characteristics. Examples of this include granting breaks, approving leave or assigning work stations. Differential treatment can only be allowed if it is a bona fide occupational requirement or a necessary condition of employment and the employer can show that failure to meet that requirement would pose an undue hardship on the company.

Aside from hiring practices, workplace discrimination can also take the form of harassment or a hostile working environment. The EEOC defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct” that’s based on one of the protected characteristics listed above. However, petty teasing doesn’t qualify as unlawful harassment, according to the EEOC, unless it creates an environment that’s intimidating, hostile or offensive. To prevent these types of actions, businesses should have clear policies in place to deal with any incidents that may arise.

Family and medical leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires employers to provide employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave if the employee or an eligible family member suffers from a serious health condition. A “family member” may include a spouse (including legal same-sex partner), child, parent or sibling of the employee. A “serious health condition” means an inability to perform work or engage in other normal activities, and can be triggered by such events as a stroke, cancer, severe asthma, pregnancy or infertility, or by the incapacity of a family member due to military service.

During FMLA, an employer must keep records of the duration and nature of the leave. When the employee returns to work, they are generally entitled to return to their same position, unless the company can prove that the employee would have been in the top 10% of pay and responsibilities for its current workforce and returning them to their old position would cause “substantial and grievous economic injury.” If an employer cannot offer the exact same job, it must give the employee a similar one.

Employment law covers a vast array of topics, from workplace safety and wages to preventing discrimination and sexual harassment. It’s important for employees and employers to be familiar with these laws, as they can vary from state to state and even city to city.

Unpaid wages

Unpaid wages can be a serious problem for employees. Many states and the federal government have laws that require employers to pay employees minimum wages, overtime, and other wage and hour requirements. Employers also have a legal obligation not to retaliate against employees who file claims for unpaid wages.

It is important that employees who believe they are owed wages contact their employer immediately and ask to have the matter settled. Depending on the circumstances, an employee may choose to file a claim with a state agency or pursue a private cause of action against their employer in court. An employment lawyer can advise an employee about the pros and cons of each option.

When seeking back wages an employee should gather copies of any documents that support their case including: calendar entries or journal notes indicating when they worked, time cards filed with their employer, paystubs, copies of checks that bounced, and any other relevant paperwork. They should also consult their attorney about whether a settlement is appropriate in their situation.

If an employer is found to have violated wage and hour or other employment laws they can be subjected to fines and penalties. An employer may also be ordered to pay their employee back wages. When an employer is found to have committed a willful violation of the law they could face criminal prosecution.