What does at-will employment mean?

Even if onboarding documents at your company don’t use the phrase at-will, there is normally some language stating that the employer has the right to terminate any employee at any time, with or without cause. In every state except Montana (which only covers employees during a probationary period), employment is presumed to be at-will, even […]

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Even if onboarding documents at your company don’t use the phrase at-will, there is normally some language stating that the employer has the right to terminate any employee at any time, with or without cause.

In every state except Montana (which only covers employees during a probationary period), employment is presumed to be at-will, even if employees don’t sign any documents that state this specifically, unless a specific agreement states otherwise.

Legal definition

“At-will” employment means that both employers and employees have the right to terminate a job for any reason, as long as the reason is not an illegal reason. An illegal reason includes terminating an employee for a discriminatory reason. A discriminatory reason would be an employment decisions due to the race, gender, disability, age, or religion of the employee. Certain states may also include additional categories, such as sexual orientation or gender identity, in the definition of discrimination. Visit the EEOC website on prohibited practices for more details on discriminatory acts.

At-will in Your State

“At will” employment can vary by state and by company. The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a website with a comprehensive definition of the law. Each state’s department of labor website also provides guidance of state-specific rules. Additionally, your company’s hiring documents, handbooks, and past practices relating to termination can all have an impact on how specific cases will be received by the courts.

Learn more about definitions, unique examples of case law and any other special exceptions in your state by searching on the terms, at-will employment and your state. Look for information coming from official .gov sites.

Helpful Links:

Which states are at-will? – Here’s a list of states with at-will exceptions due to public policy, implied contract and covenant of good faith.

Common misunderstandings regarding at-will employees in California – This article covers common misunderstandings by employers about what at-will means in California.

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