What Is At-Will Employment?

Definition & Examples of At-Will Employment

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At-will employment means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason as long as it isn't illegal. Employees can also resign at any time and for any reason.

Learn more about at-will employment.

What Is At-Will Employment?

At-will employment describes the default employment relationship between employers and employees in every state except Montana. With at-will employment, both the employee and the employer are able to terminate employment at any time, with or without cause, and with or without notice.

This type of employment relationship means that the company doesn't offer security or guaranteed employment for any period to any employee without an employment contract.

How At-Will Employment Works

At-will employment doesn't mean that employers can arbitrarily fire employees. In particular, employers can't fire an employee for a discriminatory reason. Employees can't be terminated due to their race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, national origin, disability, age (40 or older), or genetic information. Employees also can't be terminated because they complained about job discrimination.

Employers should demonstrate a good faith effort to correct an employee's performance or other issues that might lead to employment termination. Employers also should document employee performance problems and the efforts that were made to help the employee improve.

This documentation is filed in the employee's personnel record. If a lawsuit occurs as a result of employment termination, the employer may be protected by the documentation that led to employment termination.

Just as employers shouldn't arbitrarily terminate employees, employees should try to avoid quitting without notice. The one exception would be if putting in the notice would lead to a hostile workplace.

Otherwise, two week's notice is standard practice unless there's an employment contract in place that specifies another timeframe. This notice allows the employer and employee to tidy up loose ends. It also enables the employer to begin looking for a new employee before the old one leaves, minimizing the amount of time the position is unfilled.

If you were fired for a discriminatory reason, you can file a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or with a local Fair Employment Practices Agency.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

Employees with a contract may not be at-will employees. Unionized employees have a contract with their employer, for example, and that contract typically specifies the circumstances under which an employee can be terminated.

Contracts aren't always in writing. If an employer verbally implies that employment is permanent, that could be viewed as an implied contract. One example would be if an employer said, "After your probationary period, you're a permanent employee."

Employers should have their at-will employment policy in writing so employees are clear about their status. Employees should review any documents they're asked to sign carefully, and ask their employer or consult an attorney if anything seems ambiguous.

Example of an At-Will Employment Policy

Here is an example of what an at-will employment policy might look like:

Sample At-Will Employment Policy

The Company does not offer tenure or any other form of guaranteed employment. Either the Company or the employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without cause, with or without notice. This is called at-will employment.

This at-will employment relationship exists regardless of any other written statements or policies contained in this Handbook or any other Company documents or any verbal statement to the contrary.

Progressive Discipline and At-Will Employment:

While the Company may elect to follow its progressive discipline procedure, the Company is in no way obligated to do so. Using progressive discipline is at the sole discretion of the company in an employment-at-will workplace.

Exceptions to the At-Will Employment Policy:

No one except the Company’s CEO/President can enter into any kind of employment relationship or agreement that is contrary to the previous statement. To be enforceable, such relationship or agreement must be in writing, signed by the CEO/President, and notarized.

Key Takeaways

  • At-will employment means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason as long as it isn't illegal.
  • At-will employment describes the employment relationship between employers and employees in every state except Montana.
  • Employers can't fire an employee for a discriminatory reason. 
  • An employment contract may negate at-will employment.