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What is at-will employment?


If you aren't exactly sure what the phrase "at-will employment" means, don't worry, you are not alone. Many people don't know the intricacies of this legal principle, despite the fact that most employment relationships in the U.S. are "at will." Indeed, unless an employee has an actual contract — and most don't — it's likely that they are in an at-will employment relationship.

So, what does "at-will employment" actually mean? Simply put, at-will employment means an employer can fire an employee at any time for almost any reason without incurring legal liability. Likewise, an employee has the freedom to quit their job at any time.

However, there is one very important exception for employers: they cannot fire an at-will employee for unlawful reasons, such as retaliation or illegal discrimination. For example, federal law prohibits employers from firing an employee based on the employee's:

  • Age
  • Color
  • Country of origin
  • Disability
  • Sex, including gender
  • Race
  • Religion

But these are just a few of the exceptions under federal law, not to mention that some states have their own rules when it comes to at-will employment exceptions.

At-will employment: Freedom for both employers and employees

At-will employment protects both the employee and the employer by providing them with no-fault freedom to part if they are not a good working match, assuming none of the exceptions apply.

For example, if an employee is constantly late or not performing well on the job, the employer can let them go. But that is just one example. In fact, employers actually have a great deal of freedom when it comes to their reasons for firing an at-will employee — including very trivial reasons.

Imagine a situation in which an employee comes to work wearing a lime green shirt, but the employer doesn't like lime green. In this situation, the employer could terminate the employee solely because of their shirt color and likely face no legal liability. Although, in reality, it makes little sense for employers to fire employees for such petty reasons.

Alternatively, the at-will employment doctrine also allows an employee to quit for any reason, at any time. For example, the employee could be offered a better job or doesn't feel the culture at the current position aligns with their values. Or they just might not like their boss. It doesn't matter — they can leave, and the employer generally can't do anything about it.

What are some of the pros of at-will employment?

Some of the arguments for at-will-employment include, but are not limited to:

  • It often promotes a work culture based on merit.
  • It provides freedom from contractual obligations that otherwise may have to be negotiated and renegotiated every year.
  • Employees may have more freedom in defining their role at the company.
  • It may attract more top-notch talent since some employees don't want to work somewhere they feel trapped and in today's fast past world, career changes are more common than not.
  • It gives the company the freedom to quickly fire employees who are a bad fit or who are found to be harassing or bullying other employees.

What are some of the cons of at-will employment?

Some of the arguments against at-will-employment include, but are not limited to:

  • Some people may not enjoy the idea that they can lose their job for any reason except due to discrimination or retaliation.
  • Potential for higher employee turnover rate.
  • Employees can quit without any reason.
  • No job protection, which can increase financial stress and possibly impact productivity in some employees.
  • The alternative to at-will employment — employment contract — allows for company-specific terms and expectations.

At-will-employment remains controversial for some

An example of an argument for at-will-employment may be the success of entrepreneur-friendly cultures, such as Silicon Valley. For example, if an at-will employee is fired or quits and they haven't signed a contract or a non-compete agreement, they have the freedom to start their own business or join the competitor's business. Additionally, some credit at-will employment with strengthening the economy.

An argument against at-will-employment might be that it essentially strips workers of job security, thereby permanently keeping them on the edge of unemployment.

At-will employment laws sound straightforward, but they may vary state to state. Employment and labor laws — along with anti-discrimination laws — are also constantly changing, so employers need to always stay up to date on employment and discrimination laws in the workplace.

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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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