An employer shaking hands with a newly hired at-will employee.


Fast facts about the at-will employment doctrine

Whether you are an employer or an employee, it's important to understand the ins and outs of the at-will employment doctrine — particularly since the majority of employer-employee relationships in the United States are presumed to be "at-will."

In the most basic sense, at-will employment means that an employer can terminate an employee for almost any reason — although a few exceptions to the rule may exist under state and federal law. Likewise, under the at-will employment doctrine, an employee can decide to leave their employer whenever they want at their own discretion.

Want to learn more? Well, here's a quick breakdown of at-will employment that can help make more sense of this legal doctrine.

Who is an at-will employee?

As mentioned above, most employer-employee relationships are at-will. In many cases, this at-will relationship will be clearly outlined in the employer's written handbook or workplace policies.

Also, when starting a new job, some employers will even have the employee sign documents specifically addressing the issue of at-will termination. Importantly, though, the law usually doesn't require the phrase “at-will" to be used; the wording might simply say the employer can terminate the employee at any time. This still counts under the at-will employment doctrine.

Not signing the at-will employment sections of the documents may result in termination or refusal to hire, but some employers may allow negotiations or have a willingness to come to a mutual agreement about job security.

What qualifies as a lawful reason for termination?

As a whole, employees can be terminated under the at-will employment doctrine for nearly any reason, unless the employee is protected under state or federal law, such as being a member of a "protected class" (more on this later).

For example, if an employer dislikes an employee's favorite sports team, the employer could technically terminate that employee on those grounds alone. The reasons may seem incredibly petty in theory, but in reality, employers don't typically wish to waste hiring resources on terminating a person based on such small differences.

However, the fact that the legal framework is in place gives employers the leverage and power to cut employment ties with someone who isn't a great match for the workplace or team in the same way that an employee can leave a job that isn't a good match for them.

When is termination from an at-will job position potentially unlawful?

While employers can often fire an at-will employee for virtually any reason, there are some pretty big exceptions to this rule. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee for discriminatory reasons such as the employee's:

  • Race
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Disability
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Pregnancy status

These protected classes, among others, are expressly created under federal — and often state — law. Also, some, but not all, states include sexual orientation and gender identity as unlawful forms of discrimination.

Similarly, retaliation is also often an unlawful reason for termination. For instance, if an employee reports discrimination, they can't be fired because of it. But these are just a few of the exceptions to an employer's ability to terminate an employee for any reason.

Who else is exempt from termination under the at-will employment doctrine?

People who are contracted employees for a set duration are likely exempt from the at-will employment doctrine. In such a case, the contract will typically spell out that the employee can only be fired for good cause, criminal reasons, or any other distinctive reason outlined in the contract.

In some cases, there may not be an actual contract, but the employer might have made one or more statements clearly indicating they won't fire an employee for arbitrary reasons, or that there will be opportunities to improve performance before termination. These may also be used to challenge a termination, but it can be very hard for the employee to prove. In states where this is the case, it's called an implied contract exception.

It can be difficult for an employee to prove wrongful termination because the burden of proof is largely on the employee. An employer could always potentially cite another reason for termination, so the employee would be tasked with demonstrating a more obvious connection to an unlawful reason if it's suspected.

At-will employment not as intimidating as it sounds

Ultimately, it's not in an employer's best financial or business interest to randomly fire an employee who isn't causing an issue. For that reason, the at-will employment doctrine can seem more ominous than it actually is in practice. However, knowing the protected classes where termination isn't legal can be helpful for both parties.

The content appearing on this website is not intended as, and shall not be relied upon as, legal advice. It is general in nature and may not reflect all recent legal developments. Thomson Reuters is not a law firm and an attorney-client relationship is not formed through your use of this website. You should consult with qualified legal counsel before acting on any content found on this website.

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