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What Does "At Will" Mean to You the Employee?

Posted by Kathy Harrington-Sullivan | Sep 30, 2013 | 0 Comments

Naturally, it's assumed that if you're not performing up to expectations at the office, your job may be at risk.

But did you know you could be fired for any reason, or really, no reason at all?

In every U.S. state except for Montana, employers are protected under “at-will employment” laws, meaning either party can end the relationship at any time. While the doctrine gives you the freedom to move jobs as you see fit, on the other hand, it can also put your current job at risk.

  • Personality clashes with your supervisor?
  • A simple mistake you made?
  • Your political affiliation?

Yep – they could be underlying issues for an at-will termination.

Earlier this year, a number of news stories spotlighted companies that fired employees who voted for President Obama. For instance, the owner of a forensics company publicly announced the termination of two workers because of their political beliefs. According to the AOL Jobs site, in a follow-up interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, the owner, “explained that this remark was somewhat ‘tongue in cheek' and that the employees also lagged in performance. But their support for Obama was certainly an issue too.”

However, at-will laws are on the side of the worker in a number of situations:

  • Good effort – Some states will allow employees to bring a lawsuit against their employer if it failed to offer “good faith and fair dealing” in handling termination. For instance, the employer will need to provide records that it followed procedures to correct performance issues or other job-related problems before the firing.
  • Illegal firings – Workers are protected underTitle VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against terminations due to race, gender, religion, nationality, or disability. In addition, a worker cannot be fired if he or she took time off work under the Family Medical Leave Act.
  • Employment contracts – You are not considered at-will if you have signed an employment contract stating the fact, and you may only be terminated under the clauses of the contract. If the employer does not follow proper procedures in regards to a termination, you have a case of breach of contract.
  • Whistle–blower protection – Some of the greatest abuses of corporate America have been uncovered by an individual worker. Most workers are covered under “whistle blower” statutes if they report illegal misconduct by their employer to a state or federal regulatory agency.

While at-will benefits workers by allowing them the freedom to pursue their dream opportunities, moreover, it can be problematic. According to WorkplaceFairness.org, three-fourths of the 80 million American workers are employed at-will, and two million of them are fired each year. What's more – 250,000 on average are unfairly fired every year.

In addition, The New York Post reported that at-will has significantly affected American workers' ability to take time off which is due to them, working through vacations and giving up holidays.

“Some blame the American worker for not taking what is her due,” wrote Joel Pavelski. “But in a period of consistently high unemployment, job insecurity and weak labor unions, employees may feel no choice but to accept the conditions set by the culture and the individual employer. In a world of ‘at will' employment, where the work contract can be terminated at any time, it's not easy to raise objections.”

About the Author

Kathy Harrington-Sullivan

Kathy Harrington Sullivan is a Partner at Barrett & Farahany who helps potential clients understand the law, clarify their rights, and determine which steps they can take to protect themselves and their jobs.


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