At-will employment means that either the employer or the employee may terminate the employment contract at any time for any reason or no reason at all with or without notice. To put simply, you can be fired for a good reason, bad reason (within limits), or no reason at all.
How Do I Know If I am At-Will?
Most people are surprised to learn that their employment is at-will, but a careful reading of your employment contract or employee handbook may reveal the nature of your employment, whether it is at-will, for a specific term, or something else.
Whether it’s specifically delineated in your employment contract, your employee handbook, or not, the law presumes that you are an at-will employee in the overwhelming majority of states. The one exception is Montana, which protects its employees who have completed a probationary period of employment from being terminated without good cause. This means that an employer in nearly every state in the United States does not have to have “good cause” to fire you. Good cause is considered to be a business, good-faith, legitimate reason for your termination. An example of good cause is employee misconduct such as an employee who is found to be stealing company resources.
Is There Anything I Can Do if I Am Fired Without Warning?
Even though at-will employees can generally be fired for any reason or no reason with or without warning, they are still protected under specific labor and employment laws. You cannot be let go for any illegal reason under state or federal laws. For instance, being fired for your race, religion, or national origin violates Title VII and is illegal discrimination pursuant to federal law.
Similarly, you cannot be fired for exercising any of your legal rights, such as your right to take family and medical leave after having a child, or to take time off work so that you can vote or serve on a jury. You cannot be let go for exercising your legal rights. If you work at a restaurant and report health code violations which result in your termination, you can contest the termination. Likewise, you cannot be fired for reporting sexual harassment.
Terminating your employment for any of the above reasons may be considered wrongful termination of an at-will employee. Damages for wrongful termination vary, but generally include compensatory damages, accommodations, injunctive relief (making the employer do or not do something), punitive damages, and in some cases, attorney’s fees.
Do Employers Need to Have a Reason?
In a word, no, employers can fire an at-will employee for any reason or no reason at all. In other words, even if you’ve been employed for 20 years, an employer may fire you one day simply because your favorite television show is "Game of Thrones "or for no reason at all. That said, they cannot fire you for any illegal reason, as discussed in detail above.
Should I Contact an Attorney?
If you are an at-will employee terminated for what you believe is an unlawful reason, contact a skilled employment law attorney. An attorney can help you determine whether you have a valid claim and will advocate on your behalf.