In the state of California, most workers are considered “at-will” employees. At-will employment (also called employment at will) is the way most business is done.
But how does at-will employment affect you, and how can you tell if it even applies in your situation?
What is At-Will Employment?
An at-will employee is a worker who’s free to quit any time he or she wants to. On the same token, that worker’s employer is free to fire the employee for any reason. If you could walk into your boss’s office right now and say, “I quit,” there’s a good chance that you’re an at-will employee.
If you’re an at-will employee, you need to know that:
- Your employer doesn’t even need a reason to fire you, which means you may or may not have a wrongful termination case if you’re “let go”
- Your employer cannot fire you for unlawful reasons, including those involving discrimination, even if you’re under at-will employment
- Your employer can’t fire you for taking a protected leave of absence
The law basically presumes that you’re in an at-will employment situation unless you can prove otherwise. Usually, you can prove otherwise if you have written documentation about your employment or if you can show that your employer has made oral statements that show you’re not an at-will employee.
In many cases, employers have written policies, employee handbooks and other employment-related documents that reiterate employees are at-will.
If you’ve signed anything relating to your job, like a contract, see if it says anything about at-will employment. For the most part, if you’ve signed anything that says you agree that you’re an at-will employee, that’s as far as you need to look.
Sometimes employment documents don’t specifically say “at-will.” They’ll use other language, such as saying you can be fired at any time or that you can be fired without good cause (or for any reason).
If your employer has said anything that leads you to believe you can only be fired for good cause (such as “As long as you do a good job, we’ll never fire you”), you may not be subject to at-will employment rules. However, if your employer specifically told you that you’d be an at-will employee, or that you could be fired for any reason, there’s a good chance that you are one – unless you have paperwork to prove otherwise.
Can Your Boss Fire You for No Reason?
In some cases, your boss can fire you for no reason – or, at least, he or she can say there’s no reason for firing you. You could do a great job at work, show up on time every day, and be all the customers’ favorite person, but your employer could fire you on a whim.
As long as your employer’s reason for firing you isn’t unlawful, and as long as you’re not protected under an express contract or implied contract, it could be legal for your boss to let you go.
Sometimes employment contracts restrict an employer’s ability to fire an employee. In these cases, the contract usually says something about the employer having “good cause” to fire you, which means the employer has to have a fair reason. When a case like this goes to court, the court usually looks at whether you damaged the employer’s ability to run the business profitably or efficiently.
In some cases, there’s an implied contract – one that’s not written, but still basically exists. When that happens, the court might require that your employer show good cause for firing you. The court will also look at the employer’s usual practices and how long you worked for the employer, as well as whether there were any actions or communications the employer made that looked like assurances of your continued employment. Sometimes these vary by industry.
Can Your Employer Terminate At-Will Employment for an Ordinarily Illegal Reason?
No matter why your boss fires you, it cannot be for an illegal reason. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act explicitly says that employers can’t terminate workers based on:
- Gender, gender identity or gender expression
- Genetic information
- Marital status
- Medical conditions
- National origin
- Sexual orientation
Can Your Boss Fire You for Taking a Protected Leave of Absence?
Your boss can’t fire you because you took a protected leave of absence, like:
- Health conditions of close family members
- Military service
- Serving as a witness
- Serving on a jury
- Voting (for up to 2 hours at the beginning or end of your shift)
Do You Think You Were Wrongfully Terminated From At-Will Employment?
Even if you’re an at-will employee, you may have been wrongfully terminated. You can talk to a Glendale employment lawyer right now in a free consultation – just call us at 818-805-6145. We’ll ask you a few questions about your situation and determine whether you might have a case that entitles you to financial compensation.