What Does Employment At-Will Mean?

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Employment at will means that an employee can be terminated at any time without any reason, explanation, or warning. It also means that an employee can quit at any time for any reason.

Employment at Will and Termination Notice

When an employee accepts an at-will employment contract, they are able to leave their company at any time without notice. Employers are also not required to provide notice or explanation when terminating an at-will employee and the court would deny any claim attempting to seek benefits for losses as a result of termination.

At-will employment has grown increasingly more popular over time. This type of employment involves a great deal of flexibility for both the employer and the employee. It allows both parties to engage in a fair, comfortable work environment without any major commitments from either side. Employers, for example, can change the terms of an employment contract (such as wages, benefit plans, or paid time off) without notice or consequence.

Employee Rights

Despite the terms of at-will contracts, employees do have rights when their job is terminated, including contract rights, company policy, and statutory rights provided by federal and state law.

Both state and federal governments hold jurisdiction over at will employees to protect them from all sorts of issues and/or possible reasons for termination. These can include race; religion; citizenship; retaliation for performing a legally protected action; whistleblowing; disability; gender; age; physical health; sexual orientation, and other factors protected by labor laws.

There is additional information available on employee rights that will help you understand what you are entitled to and help you get assistance if you believe you have been discriminated against.

Employment at Will Exceptions

Employment Contracts
There are exceptions to the employment at will doctrine.

These include if the employee is covered under a collective bargaining agreement or has an employment contract if discrimination is involved in the termination, if public policy is violated, or if company policy states guidelines for termination. State law may also provide for exceptions.

Implied Contracts
Another exception is the implied contract exception. Employers are prohibited from firing an employee when an implied contract is created between them, regardless of whether or not a legal document exists. It is usually very difficult to prove the validity of such a document, and that burden rests with the employee. Examples of implied employment contracts are often discovered when an employer’s policy book, or new hire handbooks, indicate that employees are not at will and can only be fired for good cause.

Good Faith and Fair Dealing
Yet another exception is known as implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. In this case, employers cannot fire a person in order to avoid their duties, such as paying for healthcare, retirement, or commission-based work. 

Public Policy
Employers are not able to fire an employee if the action violates their state’s public policy exception. In this case, employers are prohibited from firing or seeking damages from an employee if the employee’s reason for leaving benefits the public.

In the United States, only seven states do not recognize public policy as an exception to this rule. These states include Alabama; Georgia; Louisiana; Maine; Nebraska; New York; Rhode Island, and Florida.