Common Misconceptions About At-Will Employment
Many people think they live in at-will employment states, and most of them are correct. Most states do subscribe to the at-will employment doctrine. At-will means the employer can fire you for any reason or no reason. But there is a BIG caveat to this—at will is not a license to discriminate.
Can My Employer Fire Me for Any Reason
While an employer can fire you for any reason or no reason, or even for the wrong reason, an employer cannot fire you for an illegal reason. An illegal reason would be firing you because of your race, color, national origin, religion, sex or gender, age, or disability. Furthermore, an employer cannot fire you in retaliation for opposing an unlawful employment practice (such as unlawful workplace discrimination). And an employer cannot fire you for exercising your rights under other employment laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, or the Fair Labor Standards Act.
So, while at-will employment means an employer doesn’t have to have a good reason, or the right reason, to fire you, it does NOT mean an employer can discriminate.
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Right To Work Laws & At Will Laws
Another common mistake is interpreting the phrase “right to work.” Many states have “right to work” laws. But people frequently mistakenly think “right to work” is the same as at-will—it is not. A “right to work” state means that if there is a union in place that covers the job you perform; you cannot be required to join the union to have that job. You have the “right to work” in that job without joining the union. But “right to work” is not the same as at-will.
Finally, some people will work under an employment agreement or “contract.” In most at-will states, these contracts will spell out that the contract does NOT change the at-will nature of your employment. In other words, an employment agreement or “contract” is NOT a guarantee of continued employment. Typically, these agreements simply spell out the job you will perform, the salary or wage you will make, and the fringe benefits you are entitled to.
To have any guarantee of continued employment under an employment agreement or “contract,” the contract must specifically and unambiguously state that the employer is giving up the right to fire you “at-will,” and it must state that the employer can only fire you “for cause.” And then, it is important to know what “cause” means, and the contract must spell that out as well.