What Does At-Will Employment Really Mean?

At-will employment is something most U.S.-based employers are familiar with. But what does this term really mean? Can an employer actually terminate an employee without any reason at all? What are the exceptions?

Defining At-Will Employment

First, let’s start with the definition of “at-will employment.” It does in fact mean that an employer has the right to terminate an employee at any time and for any (or no) reason. It also means that the employee has the right to terminate his or her own employment at any time and for any (or no) reason. There are no predefined legal requirements in terms of notice periods either. This means the termination can be done without any prior notice.

If an employer/employee who is in an at-will employment situation decides to terminate the employment relationship, the other party has no recourse. In the United States, in almost every state (Montana is the exception), an employee is considered to be an at-will employee unless there is proof otherwise, such as an employment contract.

Exceptions to the At-Will Employment Doctrine

Employers need to understand that there are caveats to the above definition. This is because other laws may be broken if a termination is made for an otherwise illegal reason, such as discrimination. Here are some of the exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine:

      • An employee cannot be fired for a discriminatory reason. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, for example, protects employees from discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, color, or sex. For another example, the Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate against someone because of a disability.
      • An employee cannot be fired out of retaliation for performing a legally protected action. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Other retaliation-protected actions include:
        • Filing a discrimination or harassment suit
        • Being a whistleblower regarding illegal or unsafe practices
        • Refusing to perform illegal activities
        • Participating in a workplace investigation
        • Requesting reasonable accommodation for a disability
        • Taking legally protected leave from work, such as FMLA  leave
        • Discussing (or complaining about) the working environment or wage and overtime practices

        An employee with a contract that outlines the terms of employment cannot be fired outside of those terms. In other words, contracts supersede at-will employment assumptions. Some states also provide protections for implied (unwritten) contracts. Check your local laws.

    • An employer who provides some protections in employment policies, such as firing only for just cause, must abide by those protections. In this case, the employer has opted to forgo the at-will option by providing other protections.

As we’ve shown here, terminating an at-will employee is not always as straightforward as it may seem. Employers should also remember that some states have more stringent requirements. Be sure to check state and local laws before making any termination decision.

Law Office of Bryan A. Chapman

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Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

(202) 508-1499

bchapman@baclaw.com

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Do I Have A Case?

By Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

When a potential client contacts me, they usually want to know whether or not they have a case.  Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question because the laws governing job discrimination are complicated and the facts of any case are subject to interpretation and change.  Employers routinely deny allegations of job discrimination.

The typical employee works at the pleasure of their employer.  The doctrine is called “employment-at-will” and it means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time and for any reason, good or bad, provided it is not for a discriminatory purpose.

It means that being terminated, in and of itself, is not proof of discrimination, even if the employee has a good job performance record.  This doctrine also applies to promotions, demotions, and transfers.  Employment-at-will is too steep a hurdle for most discrimination claims.

If an employee claims that his or her termination was discriminatory, then evidence is needed that specifically establishes a discriminatory motive on the part of the employer.  Direct evidence of an employer’s discriminatory motive is rarely available.  Most employers are not going to: 1) admit that employees are being terminated for discriminatory reasons or 2) engage in blatantly discriminatory behavior.  However, from time to time, there are exceptions.

A discriminatory motive typically has to be proven by means of circumstantial evidence.  For instance, an employee and/or group of employees are treated more harshly than similarly situated employees of a different race, sex, national origin, etc.  These cases are strongest when a group of employees are alleging the same type of discrimination.

Furthermore, the employee must demonstrate that his or her job performance was not an issue.  Employers typically claim that an employee’s termination was due to a non-discriminatory reason, such as, deficient job performance.

A hostile work environment claim is different from the typical job discrimination claim.  These claims involve overt discriminatory behavior, such as, name-calling, slurs, jokes, innuendos, and inappropriate touching and advances that make the workplace abusive and intimidating.  If an employer has notice and fails to take prompt and effective corrective action, the employer can be held liable.  A hostile work environment claim can be based on race, sex, national origin, etc.  These cases are strongest when a group of employees are alleging the same hostile work environment.

If a female employee complaints that a male manager or co-worker is engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior, and the employer fails to take corrective action that stops the harassment, the employer could be found liable for compensatory damages, such as, emotional pain and suffering.  In their defense, employers will claim that: 1) they did not have notice of the sexual harassment; 2) the sexual behavior was not severe or was consensual; or, 3) corrective action was taken.

Retaliation involves employers who punish employees for complaining about discriminatory behavior.  To establish a claim of retaliation, the employee has to demonstrate that: 1) they engaged in protected activity, such as, complaining about discrimination; 2) the punishment was severe enough to deter a typical employee from continuing to complain about discrimination; and, 3) the punishment began shortly after the complaint.  Today, the most popular type of job discrimination claim is retaliation.

Law Office of Bryan A. Chapman

Contact:

Bryan A. Chapman, Esquire

(202) 508-1499

bchapman@baclaw.com

http://www.baclaw.com

Join Facebook group: I Need A Discrimination Lawyer