California is classified as an at-will employment state. This means that an employer can terminate you for any reason and at any time of the employment with or without reason. This means that if your employer doesn’t like your personality, runs out of work for you to do, thinks you are lazy, or just doesn’t want anymore employees, they can fire you at any given time. 

Most employee handbooks today contain some sort of at-will employment disclaimer. Most handbooks define what at-will employment is, and also require an employee to sign an acknowledgment of their at-will status at the company. However, an employee working on an at-will basis does have a right not to be terminated for reasons that are illegal under state and federal law.

What is At-Will Employment in California?

In the state of California, at-will employment means that the employer or the employee may terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, so long as the reason is not illegal. 

Again, it does not make any difference whether the employee actually did anything wrong or if they performed poorly. If the employee is hired as an at-will employee, any reason, including no reason, is a proper basis for termination.   

However, being an at-will employee does not give your employer all the reasons to fire you, and there are exceptions. An employer can’t terminate employees for any illegal reason. Some illegal reasons for terminating an employee in California include discrimination based on an employee’s sex, gender, religious belief, or sexual orientation. 

If an employee is fired for any of these reasons, they may be entitled to sue the employer for employment discrimination. There can also be several other occasions where an employer can’t fire an employee. 

An example of this is if the employee has an employment contract with the employer that states specific grounds for termination. Another example is if the employee is a member of a labor union and under a union collective bargaining agreement that has specific termination provisions.

Can a Person’s At-Will Employment Status Change?

Unless otherwise stated, at-will employment is generally considered the default status for employees in the state of California. In some cases, the employer and employee can change this if they have specific needs or desires to do so. This usually can be done through a formal agreement between the employer and employee.

If it is the case where the employer and employee want to switch the status, it is best to do so in a formal employment contract. This will help provide a record and documentation that the parties changed the employee’s work status. Doing so can help prevent legal disputes in the future, and can provide a basis for evidence in the event that a lawsuit needs to be filed later on.

What are the Benefits of At-Will Employment Arrangements in California?

Both employees and employers may experience benefits from at-will employment arrangements. For employees, the main benefit is that they are free to quit their job or position at any time. They can do so without fear that they might be breaking or violating an employment contract or agreement. This can help make it easier for them to pivot or adjust if they need to find a new employment arrangement quickly and in a short amount of time.

For employers, at-will employment provides broad discretion for the employer to fire or terminate employees. This also allows the business to adapt quickly and to move forward if there has been any type of issue with an employee. The business can then search for new employees so that there are no gaps in business operations. 

What if You’ve Been Wrongfully Terminated?

If you are fired and you believe it was due to an illegal reason, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination. Wrongful termination means that your employer fired you for illegal or prohibited reasons. Even if you are an at-will employee, you still have legal rights to bring a claim against your employer. 

Here are the main steps to take if you believe you have been wrongfully terminated: 

  1. Gather Documentation: You will want to gather all the documentation and evidence that supports your belief that you may have wrongfully terminated. This can include emails, statements from witnesses or other employees, or other notes that you took down;
  2. Speak to Human Resources: Make HR aware of the situation and your belief that you were wrongfully terminated. This can often provide a solution to the dispute early on without having to resort to a lawsuit or an investigation;
  3. Consult with an Employment Lawyer: Discussing with an employment lawyer about your wrongful termination situation is optional, but having an experienced employment lawyer assist you in filing a claim can be very helpful and beneficial;
  4. File a Claim with the EEOC or DFEH: If you believe that you have been a victim of wrongful termination or discrimination, you may file a claim with the appropriate government agency such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). After receiving your claim, they will contact your employer and notify them of the charges and an investigation will begin. Note that in some cases, you may be required to file with the EEOC first and try to find a remedy through that agency before you can file a private lawsuit;
  5. File Civil Lawsuit: If the EEOC or DFEH decides not to continue or pursue your claim against your employer, or if the remedy they suggest is not satisfactory, they will provide you with a Notice of Right to Sue after the completion of the investigation. This will then allow you to file a private civil lawsuit against your employer in a court of law. You must file your lawsuit within 90 days after your receive the Notice from the EEOC or other department. 

Do I Need a California Employment Lawyer for Help with Employment Termination Issues?

If you have any type of issue at all with at-will employment, you should contact a California employment lawyer. A lawyer in your area can help you understand your rights and can represent your interests in court if necessary.