What Do You Mean?

by Amy Beck

A Helpful List of Many Employment Law-Related Words and their Meanings

At-Will State:

When an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish “just cause” for termination), and without warning, as long as the reason is not illegal (e.g. firing because of the employee’s protect class).

Right to Work State:

A Right to Work law guarantees that no person can be forced, as a condition of employment, to join or not to join, or to pay dues to a labor union.

Protected Class:

The characteristics an employer cannot rely on in making employment decisions, which include:

  • Race;
  • Color;
  • Religion or creed;
  • National origin or ancestry;
  • Sex;
  • Age (in Iowa applies to employees over 18 years old);
  • Disability;
  • Veteran status;
  • Sexual orientation; and
  • Gender identity.


A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.

Reasonable Accommodation:

Any change to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done that allows an individual with a disability to apply for a job, perform job functions, or enjoy equal access to benefits available to other individuals in the workplace.

Interactive Process

(or interactive accommodation process): Refers to the collaborative effort involving an employer and employee to determine if the employee can return to work subsequent to an occupational or non-occupational injury, disease or disorder.

Direct Threat:

A significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of that employee or others, which cannot be eliminated or reduced by a reasonable accommodation.


Punishment of an employee by an employer for engaging in legally protected activity such as making a complaint of harassment or participating in workplace investigations. Retaliation can include any negative job action, such as demotion, discipline, firing, salary reduction, or job or shift reassignment.

Hostile Work Environment:

Conduct and speech based on an employee’s protected class that is intimidating, offensive, abusive and/or otherwise offensive, going beyond rudeness or casual joking. To qualify as a “hostile” workplace, the conduct must be severe and pervasive.

Constructive Discharge:

Occurs when an employee resigns as a result of the employer creating a hostile work environment. Since the resignation was not truly voluntary, it is, in effect, a termination.

Intermittent Leave:

FMLA leave taken in separate blocks of time due to a qualifying reason.

Continuous Leave:

FMLA leave single block of time taken off for a qualifying reason.

Amy Beck is one of our Iowa attorneys, specializing in employment litigation and civil rights.

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