Employment Law -- Employee

'At Will' Employment and Termination

Key Takeaways

  • Unless there is a contract or a collective bargaining agreement that expressly states employment terms, an employee is an employee “at will.”
  • An employee at will can be fired with or without good cause and can quit for any reason.
  • States have different exceptions to the at-will doctrine, including requiring a showing of “good cause” to fire someone.

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 the at-will employment doctrine and links to more detailed articles that can help you answer specific questions. Because employment laws are complex, you should consult an employment law attorney near you if you have questions about your employment status and whether your employer is treating you fairly.

What Does At-Will Employment Mean?

Unless there is a contract or a collective bargaining agreement that expressly states employment terms, you are an employee “at will.”

The doctrine recognizes that sometimes an employee and an employer do not work well together through no fault of either party. That means that an employer can terminate your job with or without good cause and it does not qualify as wrongful termination. On the other hand, it also means that you can quit your job for any reason.

What Is an At-Will Employment Agreement?

An at-will employment agreement is a document some employers require employees to sign. In doing so, you acknowledge that you 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 firing employees without a good reason. So, they want to resolve issues with employees before resorting to termination.

Which States Are At-Will Employment?

In the United States, all states are considered at-will employment states.

The key difference between state laws is the statutory exceptions to at-will employment. These exceptions determine how each state enforces the 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 or implied covenant of good faith requires that an employer show “good cause” (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: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Delaware, Idaho, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming.

Implied Contracts

The implied contract exception is recognized in more than half the states. An implied contract exists when an employee signs an at-will agreement. The agreement or employee handbook includes language that the employer will only terminate the employee for just cause.

The following states recognize implied contracts: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Public Policy

Most states have a public policy exception to at-will employment. This 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, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska, New York, and Rhode Island.

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.

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 you because of your race, gender, age, country of national origin, disability status, or other prohibited categories of discrimination.

Additionally, an employer cannot fire you for participating in protected acts like whistleblowing or taking leave to attend to family issues. You could also be entitled to certain benefits such as severance pay when your employment ends if your employer offers it.

If you have questions about your situation, a qualified employment lawyer can explain the law, give you legal advice, and represent you in court.

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