What does at-will employment mean?
Many people are surprised to learn, whether from an employment contract or employee handbook, that they are an "at-will employee." This means that your employer can terminate you at any time, for any cause -- with or without notice. An employer has every right to walk up to an at-will employee and say, "I don't like that your favorite color is purple. You're fired." There are very few, if any, remedies for you, unless your employer did something to violate your employee rights or broke labor laws.
All states but one (Montana) have adopted laws that protect the employer in an at-will setup. That is, the employer does not have to have good cause to terminate your employment. Unless you signed some sort of employment contract that states you cannot be terminated without good cause, it is assumed that you are an at-will employee.
Many times, an employer will come right out and say that you are an at-will employee. On the contrary, employees have won cases where their employers told them they could only be fired for good cause. Even statements as lighthearted as, "You'll always have a place here, as long as you keep up the great work" have been held to mean that the employer does NOT follow the at-will employment law.
If you are told, however, either during the hiring process or after accepting the job, that you are an at-will employee, your employer has every right to rely on that statement in a legal proceeding, as proof that you may be fired without cause.
What is an employment contract, and how does it affect me?
An employment contract is an agreement between the employer and the employee that outlines the basic details of the job. So long as the employee signs it, the contract is binding. There are various types of employment contracts. Even within one company, different employees may be asked to sign different employment contracts, based on each employee's duties. Sometimes there is no written contract, but the contract is implied through an oral understanding or simply by the behavior of the employer and the employee.
The typical employment contract includes the employee's start date, salary, and benefits. Other common elements that may or may not be on your employment contract are
My employer is asking me to sign all kinds of documents. What do they all mean?
It is common to expect to read and sign numerous documents when you start your job. These documents often include company policies, applications, employee handbooks, at-will employment agreements, and job evaluations.
Employers are almost always certain to include that their employees are at-will employees. Look through these documents at your job and see if any of them mention that you are an at-will employee. Even if the documents do not use the term "at-will," any language implying that your employment can be terminated at any time means the same thing as "at-will". Chances are it is written somewhere.
Even if you're employer has not written it in any of the documents, you are probably an at-will employee, unless the documents state otherwise. If you signed any of these documents that state that you are an at-will employee, then you have agreed you understand you can be terminated at any time. Keep in mind that you may (and sometimes should) negotiate with your prospective employer.
Do I have to sign the at-will agreement?
A lot of times, employers will ask you to sign an at-will agreement, among the endless stack of other documents to sign. This is to ensure that they have secured their right to terminate at will.
Theoretically, you do NOT have to sign the at-will agreement. Courts have consistently held that the employer can terminate you or even refuse to hire you if you refuse to sign the at-will agreement, however. However, good employers know that doing so would be wasteful, and that firing people abruptly and without good cause serves no purpose.
Instead, they typically want to work with the employees to solve any problems or issues with the employment. A very popular method of doing so is using a performance improvement plan. This is basically a document that asks the manager to fill in what a certain employee needs to improve by a certain date.
Take caution when signing at-will employment agreements if you relied on your employer's comments about guaranteed continuous employment when you accepted the job. For instance, if you have an interview and the employer promises to give you a full year to learn the ropes and you can't be fired during that year. This sounds like a great deal for you, and for this reason you take the job. Do not sign an at-will agreement in this instance.
If your employer attempts to terminate your employment within that year and you take legal action, you will be able to use your employer's one year promise against her. If you sign that at-will agreement, however, holding her to her promise goes out the window. The courts will rely on the at-will agreement to determine that you were an at-will employee.
If you find yourself in this situation, ask your employer about the discrepancy between her guarantee and the at-will agreement. If the employer decides to uphold the earlier promise, ask that it be put in writing. If the employer changes her mind and refuses to honor the earlier promise, you may want to consult an employment lawyer. This is especially true if you resign from another job on the reliance of the new employer's broken promise.
How do I know if I have a claim for wrongful termination?
There are actually many labor laws an employer can break in wrongfully terminating an at-will employee. Just because you are an at-will employee, does not give your employer the right to be discriminatory. As discussed below, state and federal law prohibits discrimination based on several categories, including race, religion, gender, age, national origin, disability, pregnancy status, and, in many states, sexual orientation or gender identity. If your employer has done anything to discriminate against you, she could face serious legal trouble.
Not all wrongful termination claims are based on discrimination, either. If you have an employment contract with your employer, even if it is an implied contract, and it is terminated prematurely, then your employer breached the contract, and you have a legal claim. In this case, you may be able to bring a claim for wrongful termination or breach of contract.
If your employer terminates you out of retaliation because you exercised some right, such as reporting the company for public health and safety violations or making a harassment claim, you may have a wrongful termination claim. Likewise, if your employer terminates you for refusing to perform an illegal act, such as doing construction at a designated height without safety ropes, you may have a wrongful termination claim. If you take off work for a purpose protected by law, such as voting or military service, and your employer terminates you, you may have a wrongful termination claim.
Damages for wrongful termination can include back pay, a promotion, reinstatement, front pay, compensatory damages, reasonable accommodations, injunctive relief (forcing the employer to do or stop doing something), punitive damages, and attorney's fees. It is best that both the employee and the employer hire an employment lawyer.
Get a Free Evaluation of Your Employment-Related Legal Matter
Even if you are an "at-will" employee, it doesn't give the employer the right to fire you for any reason -- particularly if they run afoul of state or federal anti-discrimination laws. If you believe you were treated unfairly by an employer, you may want to speak with an employment law attorney. Get a free evaluation of your employment-related legal issue today.