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What Is At-Will Employment?

What Is At-Will Employment?

At-will employment means that you can be fired for almost any reason, as long as it isn’t illegal.

What Is At-Will Employment?

Both California and Arizona, like most states, are “at-will” employment states.  While this is a common term, many people are confused about what this actually means.  If you are an at-will employee, how does this impact your job?  Does it mean that your boss can fire you for any reason?

In most cases, the answer to that last question is yes: if you are an at-will employee, your boss can fire you for almost any reason, provided that it is not illegal or discriminatory.  Your boss can fire you because she does not like you as a person, because he is in a bad mood, because she mistakenly thinks that you did something wrong, because he believes that you talk too much, because she thinks you’re ugly, or almost any other reason.   When you are an at-will employee, you can be fired without “just cause” (good reason) and without any warning or due process, such as the right to a hearing or an examination of the reasons for being fired.

How Do You Know If You Are An At-Will Employee?

Most employees in the United States are classified as at-will employees, unless they belong to a union, work for the government, or have a contract setting forth the reasons that they can be terminated.  You can determine if you are an at-will employee fairly easily; if you do not have a contract with your employer, you are an at-will employee.  If you do have a contract, check the section labeled “termination.”  If it states that you can only be fired “for cause,” then you are not an at-will employee.  You can also check your employee handbook or other policies, which are often treated by courts as contracts between workers and their employers.  The section on termination should spell out what your rights are when it comes to being fired.  If you are in a union, the collective bargaining agreement will typically specify when and how unionized employees can be fired.

In theory, at-will emplyment is good for employees because they can leave their jobs at any time and are not locked into a contract with their employer for a set period of time.  In practice, it is usually bad for employees because the bargaining power between employees and employers is so unequal.

Prohibited Reasons for Termination

However, there are restrictions on an employer’s right to fire employees for any reason whatsoever.  Even in at-will states, there are both federal and state laws that expressly limit an employer’s right to fire employees for any reason whatsoever.  It is illegal to fire an employee for any number of reasons, including race, religion, color, national origin or ancestry, physical or mental disability, marital status, sex, age, medical condition and sexual orientation.  In some jurisdictions, it is also illegal to fire an employee based on their gender identity.  Employers also cannot fire employees in retaliation for blowing the whistle on them, for taking family or medical leave (where applicable), for applying for workers’ compensation, for participating in union activity, or for taking part in an investigation into discrimination or harassment claims against your employer.  These are just a few of the illegal bases for firing an employee; an employment attorney can evaluate the specific facts of your case to determine if you have a viable claim for unlawful termination against your employer.

At PLBSH, we are experienced in all aspects of employment law, including wrongful termination, harassment and discrimination.  Contact us today at (800) 435-7542 or info@plbsh.com to learn more about how we can help you if you believe that you have been wrongfully fired — even if you are an at-will employee.  We will fight to protect your rights and to get the best possible outcome for you!


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Compensation Specialist
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