At—Will Employment: What Does It Really Mean?


The concept of “At—Will Employment” is a common aspect of US Labor Law. However, it is often misunderstood by both employers and employees. Most employers assume that it gives them carte blanche to fire any employee at will. Many employees have similar assumptions.

The simple fact is that such assumptions are only half-true. In fact, the concept of At Will Employment is quite complex. In this article, we will highlight the main ideas behind At-Will Employment. To start off, let us define it.

What is At Will Employment?

In a nutshell, “At Will Employment” means that any of the parties can terminate the employment relationship at any time, and for any reason. In this context, the “parties” are an employer or employee.

For an employer, “at will employment” means that they can fire an employee at any time, and for any reason (or even for no reason at all). For an employee “at will employment” means that they can quit at any time, and for any reason.

Unlike in standard employment contracts, “at will employment” doesn’t require a party to issue a prior notice that they intend to end the employment relationship. They can end it at anytime, and the other party will have no legal recourse.

How Do People End Up In At Will Employment?

There are two ways in which At Will Employment arrangements are made. The first is through assumption. In all US states (with the exception of Montana), unless an employer explicitly states otherwise, it is assumed that anyone hired is an At-Will employee.

Most employers take advantage of this. They simply recruit their employees and don’t give them contracts which explicitly state that they aren’t at-will employees. In almost all US states, the employees hired this way are considered “At Will Employees”.

The second way is through an explicit at-will employment contract. Such a contract typically states that an employer can terminate employment at anytime and for any reason. Although most employees would refuse such contracts, the law empowers an employer to refuse hiring an applicant, or fire an employee who refuses to sign an “at-will employment” contract. As such, most applicants or employees sign such contracts especially when they are desperate to be hired or remain employed.

Are There Restrictions On At Will Employment?

On paper, an employer can fire an at-will employee at anytime and for any reason. However, in practice, this is rarely true. There are certain scenarios which can remove the carte blanche which at will employment seems to offer employers.

For starters, it is illegal to fire an employee for a discriminatory reason. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, an employer is barred for terminating employment because of an employee’s race, gender, religion, national origin and color. Similarly, the Americans with Disabilities Act ( ADA ) makes it illegal to fire someone because of a physical or mental disability. Such laws apply even in cases of at will employment.

Secondly, it is illegal to terminate employment in retaliation for an employee participating in a legally required act. For instance, if an employee blows the whistle on a labor law violation, testifies in a lawsuit against the company or speaks out about unsafe working conditions, an employer cannot fire them in retaliation. This restriction exists even in at-will employment.

There are numerous other restrictions imposed in at will employment situations. Specifically, in case a federal, state or local law places restrictions on termination of employment, such restrictions apply even in at will employment contracts.

The bottom line is that at-will employment doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is therefore imperative for both employers and employees to understand other federal, state and local laws which govern the termination of employment contracts. After all, as any ardent follower of labor law knows, no single law exists in isolation.

Brett McIntyre, Digital Marketing Director

Brett is the digital marketing director at Crimcheck.net , a NAPBS Accredited Pre-Employment background check company. For more information about pre-employment news or information, please visit our blog.

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