At-Will Employment

If you have been fired without cause, you are not alone. Most employees in the United States work for employers without an employment contract, and as such, may be fired without warning. For more information on what rights you may have under an employment contract or as an at-will employee, read below.

  1. Can my employer terminate me without a good reason?
  2. What is at-will employment?
  3. Is at-will employment bad?
  4. Do I have to sign the at-will agreement?
  5. What is the opposite of at-will employment?
  6. Can you fire an at-will employee for no reason?
  7. Do I need to give notice for at-will employment?

1. Can my employer terminate me without a good reason?

It depends. If you are working under an employment contract, the terms and conditions of that contract will dictate what your employer can fire you for.

2. What is at-will employment?

If you are not under an employment contract, you are considered an at-will employee. As an at-will employee, your employer may dismiss you without reason at any time, as long as that reason isn’t illegal under state or federal law. For example, your employer may not fire you because of your race or sex, or because you engaged in whistleblowing because state and federal laws protect people from discrimination and from retaliation for whistleblowing. At-will also means that an employer can change the terms of the employment relationship with no notice and no consequences.  For example, an employer can alter wages, terminate benefits, or reduce paid time off.

3. Is at-will employment bad?

In its unadulterated form, the U.S. at-will rule leaves employees vulnerable to arbitrary and sudden dismissal, a limited or on-call work schedule depending on the employer’s needs, and unannounced cuts in pay and benefits.

Additionally, as an at-will employee, without any contractual obligation to continue work, you may quit your job for any reason at any time. You cannot be forced to work for an employer and you don’t have to give your employer a reason for quitting.

4. Do I have to sign the at-will agreement?

Theoretically, you do NOT have to sign the at-will agreement. Courts have consistently held that the employer can terminate you or even refuse to hire you if you refuse to sign the at-will agreement, however. However, good employers know that doing so would be wasteful, and that firing people abruptly and without good cause serves no purpose.

5. What is the opposite of at-will employment?

Contract employment is the opposite of at-will employment. Contracts outline the terms of employment, including the employee’s duties, work hours, length of employment, salary and benefits.

6. Can you fire an at-will employee for no reason?

No, there are several exceptions. You are not an at-will employee if you have a contract, including a union collective bargaining agreement. If you are covered under an employment contract, you can only be terminated as the contract terms and conditions permit. If the employer does not follow the contract in terminating or disciplining you, you may have a breach of contract claim and should consider speaking to an attorney.

Montana’s exception is based on the practice that the at-will doctrine ends when the employee completes six months of employment. This gives employers the opportunity to cut their losses during a probationary period early in the relationship should there not be a good fit in terms of qualifications, performance or philosophy.

A handbook or personnel code may also be a contract, depending on the state. However, it may be that only certain clauses or issues in the handbook or personnel code are considered part of the contract. You should consult your own state’s law to determine if your state considers handbooks to be contracts between employers and employees and to what extent.

If you are a federal employee, you are always protected from any termination that violates the United States Constitution or the constitution of the state in which you work. For example, a federal employee’s rights to freedom of speech, association, religion, or freedom from unlawful search and seizure may be at issue when they are terminated.

For more information about the rights of federal employees see the Federal Employees Legal Survival Guide and our Federal Employee Discrimination page.

An employee may not be terminated for an illegal reason such as their race, sex, age, religion, nationality, or disability. If you believe you were terminated for such a reason, please see our section on discrimination for additional information about the different types of illegal discrimination and how to file a discrimination claim.

7. Do I need to give notice for at-will employment?

At-will employees are not required to give notice. Many employees inform their employers via resignation letter or oral announcement that they intend to quit. An employee’s intent to resign from his job doesn’t have to comply with any kind of professional standard or courtesy such as the two-week notice period.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.