Attorney at Law

At-Will Employment

What Is At-Will Employment?

At-will employment refers to an arrangement in which an employer hires an employee and can then terminate them for virtually any or no reason at any time with no legal repercussions. At-will employment also allows an employee to leave a job for no reason at any time.

An additional rub about at-will employment means that an employer can also change the terms of an employee's employment with no notice or consequences. This means that if they so choose, an employer in the U.S. can:

  • Raise or lower the wages of an employee at will.
  • Reduce or eliminate the benefits of an employee without providing notice.
  • Refuse to honor, reduce, or remove paid time off for an employee.

This system leaves workers hoping to sell their labor at a severe disadvantage to employers who, even if they do not take advantage of these abilities, are inherently granted vast control over their employees. An employer can demand that workers work outside their stated hours, on holidays, or during times previously marked for vacations. 

As an additional concern, at-will employment is the presumed state of being for 49 of the 50 U.S. states. This means that in every state except Montana, if a worker is not explicitly told in writing that their job is secured, they are presumed to be an at-will worker. Additionally, if an employer tells an employee that they have job security but then has the employee sign an at-will agreement, that signature will overrule any number of oral promises or previous agreements.

Key Takeaways

  • At-will employment is a power structure that allows employers to adjust or terminate a worker’s conditions of employment with no cause, notice, or legal consequences. 
  • An at-will employee can have their wages reduced, their benefits stripped, their time off canceled, or their job taken away without any notice, reason, or consideration from their employer.
  • At-will employment does have certain protections against discrimination where it has been specifically determined under federal law, but broadly at-will employees have no legal recourse.
  • If you have been fired for illegal reasons, even under at-will law, an experienced Employment Law attorney may be able to improve the outcome of your case by utilizing experience and expert knowledge.

At-Will Employment, and Employment Law

At-will employment can seem inevitable and inescapable. However, there are some ways to avoid becoming an at-will employee. Certain types of work, as well as compelling evidence can prevent an at-will firing.

Some workers are hired on a contractual basis. A contractual worker is generally hired for a certain period of time under a specific set of conditions. This means that unless a contract worker was hired with a specific “at-will” clause in their contract, they are not likely to be an at-will worker. Instead, the contract should explain in detail what, if any behavior will result in termination of the contract and the consequences of terminating the contract. If a contract worker is terminated for reasons not explicitly outlined in their contract, they may be able to sue the employer for breach of contract.

Most workers are not contract workers. However, some workers may argue that they are not working in an at-will environment using materials and evidence provided by the company itself. If a company provides exclusive lists of fireable offenses, written policies describing “good cause” firings, or provides some kind of probationary period after which a job is presumed secure, then a worker can raise a strong argument that their workplace is not an at-will situation.

This does not mean that a worker cannot be fired or that the workplace is definitively not at-will, it just allows for an argument to be made that a reasonable person would not believe that workplace to be at-will and therefore cannot be presumed to be so. On the other hand, if a worker signs an at-will agreement, even if the employee has good cause policies, it is likely still an at-will workplace.

There are some protections for workers in an at-will workplace. Certain federal laws supersede the at-will laws for businesses with more than 15 employees and protect workers no matter what. For example, laws that prohibit discrimination will trump any at-will conditions. That means that even if the worker is an at-will employee, they cannot be fired because of their age, gender, race, religion, or disability status. Additionally, workers cannot be fired as retaliation for complaining about illegal activity, reporting discrimination or harassment, or for notifying regulators about health and safety violations in the workplace.  Finally, workers cannot be fired for exercising certain legal rights such as the right to medical leave, military service, voting, or jury duty. 

If an employer promised a prospective employee that their new job would not be at-will and that induced them to quit their old job but then the employer revealed it was an at-will job after all, the employer may be open to legal action. This is because they may have committed a fraud in order to convince the employee to accept employment with the company.

Bottom Line

If you were fired from an at-will workplace for a protected reason, or you were tricked into leaving a more secure position for an at-will situation that was deceptively marketed as not, you may be able to file a lawsuit against the employer and recover damages. In order to do so, you will need the help of an Employment Law attorney. 

An experienced Employment Law attorney will be able to closely examine employment contracts, employee handbooks, and other documents from your employer to determine whether you truly worked at an at-will facility. They will be able to subpoena testimony and documentation from the company to determine whether your firing was based on a protected reasons or a retaliation for reporting illegal behavior. Then, they will use their legal expertise and trial tactics to achieve the best possible outcome for your case.

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