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"At Will" Employment and Termination

An at-will employee is an employee who does not have a formal contract that governs the employment relationship. Many Americans are employees at will. Therefore, both employees and employers must understand the concept and workers' rights under this work arrangement. This page gives a broad overview of at-will employment and links to more detailed articles that can help you answer specific questions. Because employment laws vary by state, we suggest consulting an employment law attorney in a city near you to give you the best advice about your unique circumstances.

What Does At-Will Employment Mean?

Unless there is a contract or a collective bargaining agreement that expressly states employment terms, an employee is an employee "at will." That means that an employer may terminate the employee's job with or without good cause. On the other hand, it also means that the employee may quit his job for any reason. The doctrine recognizes that sometimes an employee and an employer do not work well together through no fault of either party. In such a case, either party is free to leave rather than be locked into a poor working relationship.

Which States are At-Will Employment?

In the United States, all states are considered at-will employment states. The key difference between states is rather the exceptions to at-will employment. These exceptions determine how each state enforces the doctrine.

Exceptions to the Employment-At-Will Doctrine

Each state creates its own exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. Many states recognize three exceptions: the covenant of good faith, implied contracts, and public policy.

The "Good Faith" Exception

The covenant of good faith requires that an employer show "good cause" (in other words, a legitimate reason) to terminate an employee. Examples of good causes are poor work performance or workplace misconduct. Many employees assume that they can only be fired for a "good reason," but this is not the case in most states. Only the following states recognize the good-faith exception to the at-will doctrine: AlabamaAlaskaArizonaCaliforniaDelawareIdahoMassachusettsMontanaNebraskaUtah, and Wyoming.

Implied Contracts

The implied contract exception is another exception recognized in more than half the states. An implied contract exists when an employee signs an at-will agreement. At the same time, the agreement or employee handbook includes language indicating that the employer will only terminate the employee for just cause. The following states recognize implied contracts: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, ColoradoConnecticutHawaiiIllinoisIowaKansasKentuckyMaineMarylandMichiganMinnesotaMississippi, Nebraska, NevadaNew HampshireNew JerseyNew MexicoNew YorkNorth DakotaOhioOklahomaOregonSouth CarolinaSouth DakotaTennessee, Utah, VermontWashingtonWest VirginiaWisconsin, and Wyoming.

Public Policy

Most states have a public policy exception to at-will employment. This exemption prohibits an employer from firing an employee for reasons that violate the state's public policy or a state or federal statute. For example, it is illegal for an employer in these states to fire an employee because they are a member of a protected class, or for whistleblowing. All states recognize the public policy exception except the following: Alabama, Florida, GeorgiaLouisiana, Nebraska, New York, and Rhode Island.

What is an At-Will Employment Agreement?

An at-will employment agreement is a document some employers require employees to sign. In doing so, the employee acknowledges they are an at-will employee. Many employees feel like they have to sign the agreement. Indeed, many federal and state courts have upheld the employer's ability to terminate an employee who refuses to sign such an agreement. Most employers, however, recognize that they have little to gain by terminating employees without a good reason. So, they want to resolve issues with employees before resorting to termination.

How Can I Tell if I Am an At-Will Employee?

In the U.S., most employees are at-will. But positions covered by a written signed employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement are not at-will. In addition, some states recognize implied or verbal employment contracts, which means that they may not be considered at-will even without a physical contract. Be aware that employees governed by such an agreement may be subject to certain restrictions. For example, union employees often must resolve disputes through the union's grievance process.

Can I Get Unemployment if My Employer Fired Me for No Reason?

Whether an employee fired for no reason can get unemployment depends on the state. Each state determines the criteria for unemployment benefits. Eligibility, amounts, and duration can vary. However, most states allow at-will employees terminated without fault to qualify for some measure of unemployment benefits. Note that the threat of rising unemployment insurance taxes is another factor that keeps companies from terminating employees without a good reason.

Do I Have Any Rights as an At-Will Employee?

While it may seem like an at-will employee is at their employer's mercy, other state and federal laws provide some job security. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee because of their race, gender, or disability status. Additionally, the employer cannot terminate an employee who participates in acts that extend their legal rights—for example, whistleblowing or taking leave to attend to family issues. Employees may also be entitled to certain benefits such as severance pay when their employment ends if the employer offers it.

Does My Employer Have To Give Me Notice Before I Can Be Fired Or Laid Off?

It depends. An employer may terminate an at-will employee without notice. But, if an employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement exists, the employer may have to give notice. Also, in some situations, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act and some state laws require employers to provide notice to workers before plant closings and mass lay-offs. Even everyday legal matters can become complex and stressful. Law Info intends to provide helpful and informative information in publishing this article and not to provide legal advice. A qualified employment lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact an attorney in your area from our directory to discuss your specific legal situation.