Terminating an employee simply means that you end the employment relationship. In general, "discharge" can be a synonym for the more common label "termination" when releasing an employee involuntarily from a job. However, discharge is often used in the legal phrase "wrongful discharge." When you fire somebody in violation of local, state or federal anti-discrimination or anti-retaliation laws, you face a potential "wrongful discharge" lawsuit.
Many U.S. states have work-at-will laws, which means the employer or employee can legally end an employment relationship at any point. Thus, you generally have the right to terminate an employee for offenses outlined in your employee manual. You can also terminate for poor performance, though it is wise to document the performance over time.
Work at will doesn't allow an employer to break the law. Federal employment laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act protect workers from wrongful termination for certain reasons. With rare exception, an employer can't fire someone based on age, race, color, gender, national origin, pregnancy or disability, according to FindLaw. Some states have laws expanding protected classes to include people who might face discrimination for their real or perceived sexual orientation. If a terminated employee files a wrongful discharge suit and can demonstrate that one of these factors played a role, damages will likely be awarded. Other common reasons for wrongful discharge lawsuits include breaches of contracted employment arrangements and retaliation for whistleblowing.