When talking about finding or leaving a job, one phrase tends to stick out: “at-will employment.” It’s in your contract, it comes up when you talk about not liking your job, it may be part of the discussion if you are let go, but what does it actually mean? Does it really mean that you can quit or be fired without a reason? Are there any protections for you as an employee?
At-will employment comes from a labor law that allows an employer to terminate any employee for any reason, without warning. Conversely, an employee can leave their job at any point without any reason or warning. If you are hired as an “at-will” employee, courts usually won’t give you damages for any loss that incur as a result of being let go.
There are some exceptions to at-will employment. One of the most common one is implied contracts. An implied contract can be made through oral assurances or written policies contained in an employee handbook, policy, memo. These statements could be outlines for disciplinary procedures, assurances of long-term employment, or a history of handling hiring and firing. Not only can these instances be taken as a contract, they are often enforced in court. Because of this, employers usually coach all written communication in general terms, to preserve their employee’s at-will status. They also include a statement that employees hired as an “at-will employee,” meaning that they can be let go or leave at any point.
Public Policy Exception
In addition to implied contracts, states can prohibit firing based on state policy or public service roles. For instance, you cannot be fired for serving on a jury or being deployed in the military, since these are public service roles. You also can’t be fired if you have applied for worker’s compensation, or for being a whistleblower. These stipulations allow employees to be contributing members of society and to act in self-interest without worrying about losing their jobs.
The biggest exception to at-will employment is federally-protected classes. You cannot be fired as discrimination, retaliation, or defamation. These cases can be harder to prove, but they usually require you to prove that you were discriminated against, that it was a retaliation, or that the company has damaged your reputation. If this is the case, you will usually have to go to court. You probably won’t get your job back, but you can receive damages.
In the end, at-will employment is a way for employers to protect themselves against unlawful termination suits. You know what you are getting yourself into when you take a job that specifies that you are an at-will employee. Make sure you read all the documentation and contracts carefully so you are aware of the specifics of your job.