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  3. What is at-will employment? Understand the concept!
What is at-will employment? Understand the concept!

What is at-will employment? Understand the concept!

Artwork by: Ksenia Stoylik

  • How at-will employment differs from for cause employment
  • How to tell if a job is at-will or for-cause employment
  • Legal rights you have under at-will employment
  • Legal rights that at-will employees generally lack
  • At-will employment can (but doesn’t always) conflict with labor unions
  • How to tell if an at-will employment job is exploitive
  • Key takeaways

Most employment in the US is at-will employment, and this comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. We’ll explain what at-will employment is and the legal rights you have in this type of role.

Many US-based companies operate under a policy of at-will employment - meaning that the business can fire their employees without need for justification and employees can walk away from their job at any time. 

To understand what at-will employment is and how it works, it’s important to study the following topics:

  • Difference between at will and for cause employment

  • How to tell if a job is at will employment

  • Legal rights you have under at-will employment

  • Legal rights you lack under at-will employment

  • At-will employment and labor unions

  • How to tell if an at will employment job is exploitive

How at-will employment differs from for cause employment

At-will employment, as the term “at will” suggests, means there’s little to no legal restrictions on a company’s ability to hire and fire their employee. If managers at a company want to fire, lay off, or let go someone in their workforce, they don’t need to offer a reason or explanation. They can just tell the employee to pack their things and leave the premises.

The flexibility and work-life balance of careers with at-will employment works both ways. If an employee agrees to terms of at-will employment with their company, they can choose at any time to quit their job and move on to another opportunity.

Careers with for-cause agreements have specific clauses in their employment contracts that protect an employee from arbitrary termination.  In these positions, an employee can only be fired under specific conditions such as violating workplace codes of conduct, repeatedly failing to perform job tasks well or on time, or engaging in fraud or theft of company assets. Sometimes, for-cause employment contracts also require employers to issue notices or written warnings to underperforming employees, giving them a fair chance to improve their work.

How to tell if a job is at-will or for-cause employment

The simplest way to figure out if a job is “at will” or not is to simply call the company’s HR department or ask a hiring manager during your job interview. Even if an employee doesn’t specifically use the term “at will,” statements such as “we reserve the right to lay off employees at any time” implicitly describe an “at-will employment” agreement. Furthermore, statements such as “we only fire employees who fail to improve after multiple warnings or citations” implicitly suggest “for cause” terms of employment.

If you’ve just been hired, you can also look through your employee handbook, employment contract, or job offer to search for key phrases like the following:

  • “…Employed at will…”

  • “…hired on an at-will basis…”

  • “…may be discharged for any reason.”

  • “…may be laid off at any time.”

These and other terms are strong indicators that the company hires employees on an at-will basis. However, keep in mind that almost all jobs in the US are categorized as at-will employment. 

Legal rights you have under at-will employment

Even if you are working at an at-will employment job, there are certain state and federal laws designed to protect you from specific kinds of wrongful termination.

First, anti-discrimination laws forbid companies from firing employees based on their race, gender, sexuality, religion, or economic background. Employees also can’t be fired for taking medical leave, taking leaves of absence to care for families, or going on furloughs to vote, serve on juries, and exercising other such civil rights.

In most US states, it’s also illegal for companies to fire employees for blatantly exploitive reasons such as:

  • Silencing complaints about workplace discrimination or harassment.

  • Retaliating against attempts to report workplace health and safety violations.

  • Punishing attempts to organize labor unions or union actions.

  • Blocking employees from gaining access to retirement benefits, severance pay, unemployment benefits, and/or commission pay.

Employees who are fired from at-will employment companies for any of the reasons above have the right to seek damages in a court of law.

Legal rights that at-will employees generally lack

Once a business professional signs or agrees to an at-will employment contract, their career only exists as long as their employers want it to exist. Even if they’re a skilled, considerate employee, they can still be fired without any warnings or chances to change their employer’s minds.

If a former at-will employee can’t prove they were fired for illegal reasons, it’s almost impossible for them to seek damages or appeals for their sudden termination. Some unscrupulous companies may even exploit their right to discharge employees without explanation in order to conceal or downplay unethical decisions.

Theoretically, at-will employment companies will try to avoid firing workers without rhyme or reason in order to keep their public reputation from being damaged. Some managers of at-will employment companies may even voluntarily offer struggling employees opportunities to improve their work before they get fired. Still, a manager at an at-will company has no obligation to justify their decision or prove that an employee is not living up to their responsibilities.

At-will employment can (but doesn’t always) conflict with labor unions

In many ways, labor unions and workplaces with at-will employment are natural enemies. Companies with at-will employment contracts generally want to hire and fire employees as they please, free from oversight and restrictions. Labor unions, through collective bargaining and strikes, seek to protect the jobs and benefits their members currently possess.

Most unionized workforces prefer to negotiate for-cause employment contracts with their employers, outlining specific circumstances under which employees can be fired and protecting the jobs of employees who don’t meet said criteria. It’s also legal for non-unionized at-will employees to try and organize their own union from scratch.

Statistical Insight

According to this article on the World Population Review site, all 50 states in the United States of America allow businesses to hire employees on an at-will basis. Thirteen of these states have legal exemptions to this policy if a company’s job offer includes language that implies a contract between employer and employee.

How to tell if an at-will employment job is exploitive

Study the language and terms in the job offer or employment contract you receive, searching for clauses that might protect you from being laid off out of the blue. Even if the company reserves the right to hire and fire employees as they please, they might still offer privileges such as a chance for employees to appeal the firing decision or get extra job training. At-will employment companies with policies like those are much less likely to be exploitative.

Expert Tip

While researching the integrity of companies with at-will employment, search for reviews of the company by former employees on websites such as Glassdoor. If the at-will employment company has a track record of mistreating employees, then firing them when they push back, this trend will be consistently reflected in the reviews you find.

Key takeaways

  1. In jobs with at-will employment, employers can fire employees as they please, with no need for justification.

  2. Employees also have the right to quit at-will employment jobs whenever they wish.

  3. For-cause employment jobs have contracts with specific criteria for when and how employees can be laid off or quit.

  4. At-will employers still aren’t allowed to fire their employees for discriminatory or exploitative reasons. 

  5. Since at-will employers don’t need to explain why they’re terminating employees, it’s hard for members of their workforce to contest management decisions about who is fired or hired.

  6. Union organizing is rarely forbidden, but often heavily discouraged by at-will employers.

  7. Study the job offers, contracts, handbooks, and reviews of companies with at-will employment to make sure they aren’t exploitative.

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