Getting let go can come as a shock, and it may feel unfair. In some cases, it is unfair. And against the law. There are rules employers need to follow when they fire workers. If your employer breaks one of these rules, you can challenge your dismissal. Learn about your rights if you are fired.
Does the main legislation in BC that protects workers apply to you
Some types of workers aren’t covered by the main legislation protecting workers in BC. The legislation doesn’t apply to people who are:
- in licensed professions, such as doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers and realtors
- in industries regulated by the federal government (for example, banks and airlines)
- in certain government incentive programs while receiving income assistance, disability benefits or Employment Insurance
- secondary-school students working at their school or in work-study programs
- primary- or secondary-school students working 15 hours or less a week as newspaper carriers
As well, the parts of the legislation dealing with dismissal don’t apply to people who are:
- student nurses
- voluntary or auxiliary firefighters
- commercial fishermen
If you work in a federally regulated industry, different laws apply. Employment and Social Development Canada can help you resolve a dispute with your employer (see the “Get help” section below).
You can be fired for "just cause"
“While working in marketing at a fast food company, I sometimes had to perform as a mascot. One day I was dressed as a chicken, giving away chicken nuggets on a street corner. A car roared through a curbside puddle and soaked me. I lost my cool, and threw my bucket of chicken at the car. The car swerved into an old lady, breaking her leg. It wasn’t the first time I’d lost my temper on the job. The driver reported me to my manager and I was fired."
– Jamie, Maple Ridge
Under the law, an employer has the right to fire a worker who does something seriously wrong. This is called being fired for “just cause”. If you are fired for just cause, the employer doesn’t have to give you notice or severance pay.
An employer can’t fire you for just cause if they’re just unhappy with your performance. (Your employer may, for example, be an unreasonable perfectionist.) “Just cause” behaviour is where you do something seriously incompatible with the employment relationship continuing — to the point that the employer cannot be expected to provide you with another chance.
Your employer might have just cause to fire you if you:
- are dishonest about something important
- steal from your employer
- put yourself into a conflict of interest (for example, setting up a business to compete with your employer)
- use drugs or alcohol in a way that interferes with your job performance
- intentionally disobey your boss
- repeatedly refuse to follow a clear chain of command
- repeatedly breach a clear workplace policy or rule
- are seriously incompetent (for example, you were hired because you said you could repair a car engine, but it turns out you can’t)
The burden of proving just cause is on the employer. In all but the most serious cases of misconduct, you are entitled to receive warnings and opportunities to improve before being dismissed for just cause.
If your employer is firing you for just cause, they have to tell you what the reason is.
There are many factors in play in a “just cause” dismissal. If you don’t think your employer had grounds to fire you for just cause, see the “Deal with the problem” section below.
If you’re fired for unsatisfactory performance
If an employer fires you because of your unsatisfactory performance, they must either give you notice or severance pay, or show all of the following:
- They established a reasonable standard of performance and communicated the standard to you.
- You were clearly warned that your performance was below the established standard and that continued failure to meet the standard would result in dismissal.
- You were given a reasonable amount of time and assistance to meet the required standard of performance.
- You still failed to meet the standard.
An employee’s inability to meet the requirements of the job does not constitute just cause.
If you’re fired and you’ve done nothing wrong
Your employer doesn’t need a reason to fire you. But if you’ve done nothing wrong and are let go — which is called being fired without just cause — you have certain rights you don’t have if you’re fired with just cause.
In this case, under the law in BC, the employer must give you “notice of termination”. There are two ways they can do this:
- They can warn you in advance that they plan to let you go. How much advance warning you’re entitled to depends on many things, including how long you’ve been in the job. This advance warning is called the “notice period”.
- They can let you go right away. But then they have to pay you out. That is, they have to give you the money you would have earned during the notice period. This money is called “severance pay”.
See our guidance on how much notice an employer needs to give you.
Consider adding a provision about notice and severance pay to your employment contract. That way, there’ll be no disagreements about what you’re entitled to. And you won't have to pay legal fees if things later go sideways.
You can’t be fired for doing something you have the legal right to do
Your employer can’t fire you for doing something that’s permitted under BC's main law protecting workers. For example, you can’t be fired for any of the following:
- Taking pregnancy or parental leave, and returning to work at the end of your leave.
- Refusing to sign an agreement that will affect your rights (for example, an agreement about how you’ll be paid for overtime).
- Filing a complaint against your employer with the Employment Standards Branch.
- Taking an annual vacation if you’re entitled to it.
Nor can your employer fire you for raising safety issues or refusing unsafe work. If they do, you can file a claim with WorkSafeBC.
You can’t be fired for a reason that violates your human rights
Your employer is breaking BC's human rights law if they fire you because of:
- your race, colour, ancestry, ethnic origin, citizenship, or where you were born
- your religious beliefs
- a physical or mental disability that you have (including addiction)
- the fact that you have children, plan to have children, or are pregnant
- your marital status (for example, married, divorced or single)
- your gender
- your sexual identity, gender identity, or gender expression
If you’re let go, and you believe it’s for one of these reasons, you can start a claim with the BC Human Rights Tribunal. Another option is to start a claim for wrongful dismissal (see the “Deal with the problem” section below).
By making a claim to the Human Rights Tribunal, you can ask for your job back. If your claim is successful, and your employer doesn’t want you back, they may make a settlement offer.
You can be “laid off” without losing your job
In some situations — like when there just isn’t enough work — your employer may wish to lay you off temporarily. (See our guidance on getting temporarily laid off.) However, this is against the law. Unless:
- you have a written employment contract that allows for a layoff, or
- you work in an industry where layoffs are standard practice (for example, the logging industry), or
- you consent to the layoff.
Being temporarily laid off is not the same as being fired. The most important difference is, you keep your job. You’re standing by to be called back to work. Typically, your employer must do so within three months.
Your employer must issue your Record of Employment
A Record of Employment — or ROE — is a kind of “receipt” of your job history. Your employer must give you an ROE when you stop working for them. The government uses your ROE to decide if you’re eligible to receive benefits such as Employment Insurance. (See “Deal with the problem”, below.)
Your ROE must be issued within five days of the day you’re fired. Your employer can submit your ROE directly to Service Canada electronically, or prepare a paper copy and give it to you.
When you’re leaving a job, ask your employer if they’ll write you a reference letter. No law in BC says they have to, but most employers will do so as an act of good faith.
Step 1. Ask your employer why you’ve been fired
Legally speaking, your employer doesn’t need to give a reason for firing you — unless they are firing you for just cause. But you should ask anyway.
They may not tell you. Or they may give you a reason that isn’t the full story. (For example, they may tell you that they’re reducing their workforce in order to cut costs.)
If they do give you a reason, however, this can help you decide what to do next. If you disagree with the reason, consider getting legal advice. If you don’t have a lawyer, there are options for free or low-cost legal help.
Step 2. Apply for benefits
Your employer may agree to give you severance pay. However, it might be a long time before you actually receive it. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to apply for Employment Insurance benefits.
EI benefits are temporary payments you get until you find a new job. This will allow you to pay your monthly bills while you’re unemployed. You’ll also feel less pressure to accept a lowball offer from your employer.
There are time limits for filing, so you should apply right away. If you get severance pay from your employer, you might have to pay back some of the EI you got.
Step 3. Gather your evidence
It’s a good idea to create a paper trail. Document everything you can in case the matter ends up going to a hearing or trial. The evidence you gather will also be useful to a lawyer, should you decide to see one.
Types of evidence you should try to collect include:
- your employment contract (if you have one)
- paperwork your employer gave you when you were fired, including your Record of Employment
- any letters, memos or emails that might help show why you were fired
- documents or other things that show what you did to assert your rights as a worker
- any notes you made about things that happened at work (for example, incidents where your employer didn’t respect your rights)
- contact information of co-workers who may have seen or heard something that could help show why you were fired
If you’re dealing with serious work-related stress, consider getting medical treatment. Medical records are a very strong form of evidence.
You should also collect proof of your job search efforts since you were fired. Showing that you took steps to reduce your losses is important if you decide to start a complaint or court action.
Step 4. Consider your legal options
If you think your employer breached your legal rights by firing you, it’s a good idea to get legal advice. A lawyer with employment law experience will be able to advise you on your options to take action. Depending on the situation, you may have as many as three options.
Making a complaint to the Employment Standards Branch
If you think your employer has breached BC's main law protecting workers, you can make a complaint to the Employment Standards Branch. For the steps to take, see our page on how much notice your employer needs to give you, under the “Deal with the problem” section.
There are time limits for making a complaint (usually six months from when you were fired).
Filing a claim with the Human Rights Tribunal
If your employer fired you for a reason that violates your human rights, you can file a claim with the BC Human Rights Tribunal. You may be able to recover any lost wages, or compensation for injury to your dignity or self-respect.
A human rights claim can be appropriate for lower-income workers who were hired for a short time. If you were in a job for a long time, or your employer is guilty of especially bad behaviour, you might get more compensation by starting a legal action.
Starting legal action against your employer
If your employer clearly breached your rights by firing you, you may have to take more serious action. You may want to consider suing them for "wrongful dismissal".
If your claim is for less than $35,000, you can sue in Small Claims Court. It’s faster and less complicated than suing in the BC Supreme Court. If your claim is for less than $5,000, it will be heard by the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This is an online tribunal that encourages a collaborative approach to resolving disputes.
If you do decide to sue, there are time limitations on filing lawsuits. The time limit to sue in court is two years from when you were fired. There are steps you can take to extend the time limit and preserve your rights. A lawyer can explain your options, and help you decide on the best course of action.
It is important to get legal advice in considering these options. Once you have started on one of these paths, you may be legally prevented from switching to or using another process. It is also important to understand which option is best suited for your particular problem. If you don’t have a lawyer, there are options for free or low-cost legal help.
I’ve been fired. Does my employer need to give me a reason?
No — unless your employer is firing you for just cause. In that case, they have to tell you what the reason is.
If your employer is not firing you for cause, they don't have to give you a reason for letting you go. Some employers withhold their reason as that way they’re less likely to say something that shows they fired you illegally. (Some reasons an employer might give for firing you aren’t legal. For example, you’ve been let go because you have a disability.) See the “Understand your legal rights” section above to learn more about prohibited grounds for dismissal.
If my claim against my employer is successful, can I get my job back?
Yes. If it’s decided that you were wrongfully fired, one possible outcome is that you’re reinstated in your job.
However, that may not be in your best interests. This is especially true if you feel your employer has mistreated you. Consider asking your employer for a reference letter (though be aware they may be reluctant to do so).
If a court or tribunal does order you to be reinstated in your job, your employer may prefer that you don’t return. They may offer you severance pay instead.
Should I accept severance pay from my employer even if I think my dismissal was unfair?
If you think your dismissal was unfair, consider getting legal advice before accepting severance pay from your employer. Once you accept the offer, a court may say that you’ve given up your right to sue. Take some time to think it over and get proper advice.
The BC Human Rights Tribunal deals with claims that an employer breached your human rights.
The Employment Standards Branch deals with complaints against an employer if you were wrongfully dismissed.
Employment and Social Development Canada can help you bring a claim against your employer if you work in a federally regulated industry.
Service Canada is the federal agency that administers the Employment Insurance program. They can help with questions or concerns you have about EI benefits.
WorkSafeBC can help if you want to report an unsafe workplace.