At-Will Employment

What Does At-Will Employment Mean?

employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish “just cause” for termination), and without warning. When an employee is acknowledged as being hired “at will”, courts deny the employee any claim for loss resulting from the dismissal. The rule is justified by its proponents on the basis that an employee may be similarly entitled to leave his or her job without reason or warning. In contrast, the practice is seen as unjust by those who view the employment relationship as characterized by inequality of bargaining power.

Job applicants and new employees are often perplexed to read in a job application, employment contract, or employee handbook, that they will be employed “at will.” They are even more troubled when they find out exactly what this language means: That an at-will employee can be fired at any time, for almost any reason. If the employer decides to let you go, that’s the end of your job.You have very limited legal rights to fight your termination. If you are employed at will, your employer does not need good cause to fire you.

In every state but Montana, employers are free to adopt at-will employment policies, and many of them have. In fact, unless your employer gives some clear indication that it will only fire employees for good cause, the law presumes that you are employed at will.

Know your Rights

Even if you are an at-will employee, you still cannot be fired for reasons that are illegal under state and federal law. In these situations, the government has decided to make an exception to the general rule of at-will employment. For example, if your employer is subject to federal and state laws prohibiting job discrimination (as all but the smallest employers are), you cannot be fired because of certain characteristics, such as your race, religion, or gender. Similarly, you cannot be fired because you have complained about illegal activity, about discrimination or harassment, or about health and safety violations in the workplace. And you cannot be fired for exercising a variety of legal rights, including the right to take family and medical leave, to take leave to serve in the military, or to take time off work to vote or serve on a jury.

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