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At-What? Understanding At-Will Employment

April 4, 2016 Legal Team

You’ve probably seen the term, “at-will employment” in your hiring paperwork, your employee handbook, or on posters in the breakroom. But what does that mean? Can you really be fired for any reason at all?

The answer is yes…and no. At-Will status has been adopted by employers in every state except Montana, where employees are protected from termination without “good cause” after they pass their probationary period. For the rest of us, at-will employment means your employer can choose to terminate your employment at any time, for any reason or no reason at all. Even if your handbook does not state you are At-Will, the law typically assumes you are. Additionally, it does not have to be phrased exactly as “at-will”. Any terminology such as “can be fired at any time”, “with or without cause”, alludes to At-Will status. Unless you have a binding contract or other documentation stating that your employment cannot be terminated before a certain time period has passed, or that you can’t be fired without justifiable reason, it is presumed that you fall under the at-will policy.

Finding this out can be disheartening for those in the workforce. The next question which typically follows is, “What are my rights?”

As an employee, you do have some rights which protect you from wrongful termination or give you some recourse in the event that wrongful termination does occur. Employers may not terminate you as the result of discrimination against a protected class (your race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability), or in retaliation for making a complaint about discrimination or safety/illegal activity. Anything else is pretty much fair game.

It’s important to understand the difference between discrimination, and favoritism or a general “dislike”. For example, someone may say, “My boss allows my co-worker to take time off whenever she wants, but my one request for a day off was denied. Isn’t this discrimination?” It could be. You have to examine the reason she is treating you differently. Do you have good reason to believe she “doesn’t like you” because you are a different race from her? Because you openly practice a different religion than she does? Or does the resistance seem to stem from having different personality types? If the reason is the latter, or she “just doesn’t like you”, it most likely is not discrimination.

Whistleblowers are also protected, and should not be terminated after making a complaint internally or externally about potential safety hazards or suspected illegal activities. Wrongful termination by retaliation occurs when an employee makes a complaint to HR or upper management about perceived illegal activity and is clearly let go as a direct result. Retaliation does not include making a complaint to HR about a “mean” boss, wanting a raise, or annoyances from a co-worker.

If you believe you have been discriminated or retaliated against, or have experienced wrongful termination under the conditions listed above, it would be in your best interest to contact one of our offices immediately, so an attorney may review your case and advise you on your options at this point.