At-will employment is a term used in employment agreements that describes the employment status of an employee. Specifically, it means that the employee is being hired for an indefinite period of time. It also means that their employer has the right to terminate them at any time without cause (i.e., for any or no reason). 

Alternatively, it also means that the employee has the right to terminate their own employment at any time for any or no reason. 

Essentially, neither the employer nor the employee need a justified reason for terminating the employment relationship. Any reason will be considered a proper basis for termination, including having no reason at all, so long as it is not illegal (e.g., discrimination).

The issue with at-will employment is that regardless of whether it is the employee or employer who decides to terminate the employment relationship, the other party has no way to prevent it from happening.

Additionally, at-will employees are subject to an employer’s decisions, meaning that the employer has the right to change the terms of their employment without notice and will not face any consequences. For example, an employer can terminate an at-will employee’s benefits or reduce their wages, and cannot be penalized for these decisions. 

There are, however, several exceptions to at-will termination. Although the next section will discuss the main ones, there are many others that an at-will employee may be able to use as a defense. 

Consulting an employment attorney can be helpful in determining what exceptions might exist in regard to a dispute over termination of an at-will employee. 

What are Some of the Exceptions to At-Will Employment Termination?

As mentioned, an employer may not terminate an at-will employee for reasons that are illegal. This is referred to as wrongful termination. Wrongful termination is any firing of an employee that violates federal, state, or local laws; the terms of an employment agreement; or is against public policy. 

Thus, some of the exceptions to at-will employment termination include:

  • Discrimination (e.g., termination based on race, religion, gender, age, disability, etc.);
  • Retaliation;
  • Public policy exceptions (e.g., termination based on whistleblowing);
  • Breach of good faith and fair dealing;
  • Implied Contract (e.g., the employer represented to the employee that they would have certain protections, such as job security); 
  • Breach of the employment agreement; 
  • Violation of a company’s termination procedures; and
  • Various other exceptions.

Not all states follow the above exceptions, and some states may also have their own additional requirements for at-will termination exceptions.

Therefore, if you are an at-will employee and are experiencing issues with what is possibly a wrongful termination, it may be in your best interest to contact an employment lawyer. They will be able to provide you with an exhaustive list of exceptions and help you to defend your rights as an at-will employee.  

Can an Employer Fire an At-Will Employee Even If They Have Worked for Them for a Long Time?

It is possible to fire an at-will employee, even if an employee has worked for their employer for an extended amount of time. However, some of the above-mentioned exceptions may be able to protect a long-time employee from termination. 

For instance, if the at-will employee claims there was an implied contract that promised the employee job security unless there was a good reason (cause) to fire them, then they may be able to use the amount of years they worked for their employer as proof of the implied contract.

What are Some of the Benefits of At-Will Employment?

There are some advantages to at-will employment. For one, according to the general terms of an at-will employment agreement, an employee is allowed to quit their job at any time without facing repercussions for breaking their employment contract. 

At-will employment also gives an employee leverage to request a promotion or raise, since the employer knows that they can just quit and go elsewhere if they do not receive it. 

On the other hand, an employer also benefits from an at-will employment agreement for similar reasons. As discussed, they can fire an at-will employee for almost any reason. They also can change the employee’s job description or work schedule without providing notice and without the fear of facing any consequences. 

Given that the advantages of an at-will employment agreement simultaneously seem to be the disadvantages for the opposing party, you may want to contact an employment attorney. They can help you discuss all of the rights you have under an at-will employment agreement, as well as have them review the agreement before you sign it.

Can an At-Will Employment Status Change?

Although at-will employment is legally considered the default status of employment by American courts, an at-will employee’s status can be altered if both the employer and the employee agree to such a change in a legal contract.

If you are an at-will employee and are attempting to change your employee status, you should consider contacting an employment lawyer for assistance.  

Do I Need a Lawyer to Help with Issues Regarding At-Will Employment?

If you are experiencing issues with an at-will employment arrangement, it may be in your best interest to contact an employment lawyer. A qualified lawyer can counsel you about your rights as an employee and can determine whether any of those rights have been violated.

Additionally, depending on your situation, an employment lawyer can help negotiate on your behalf during a settlement agreement with your employer. They can also represent you in court on these matters, should it be necessary.