What Does Employment at Will Mean?

Information on Employment at Will and Exceptions

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What is employment at will? Employment at will means that an employee can be terminated at any time without any reason, explanation or warning. In contrast, it also means that an employee is free to quit or leave without reason.

Employment at Will and Termination Notice

When an employee accepts an at-will employment contract, they are able to leave their companies 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 allotments) without notice or consequence.

Employee Rights

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 employees understand what they are entitled to and to get assistance if they believe they have been discriminated against.

Employment at Will Exceptions

Employment Contracts
There are exceptions to the employment at-will doctrine including 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 example is the implied contract exception. Employers are prohibited from firing n employee when an implied contract is created between them, regardless of whether or not a legal document was drawn up. It is usually very difficult to prove the validity of such a document, and that burden sits 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 will 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 respective 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 action benefits the public. In the United States, only seven states do not recognize public policy as an exception to this rule, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, and Florida.

Here is a list of exceptions to employment at will.

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