At-Will Employment: What Does it Mean?
Most people who work in California are considered “at-will” employees. But what does “at-will” employment even mean? California Labor Code 2922 provides that an “at-will” employment relationship can be terminated at the will of the employee or employer on notice to the other.
In other words, “at-will” employees can decide to leave their employment at any time. Similarly, the employer can decide to terminate at-will employees at any time for any reason–or for no reason at all. A common misconception is that an employer can only fire an employee if they are underperforming or if they fail to meet certain job requirements. However, this is not true for at-will employees. An employer can decide to fire an employee for any lawful reason – even if the employee thrives in their job.
How Do I Know If I Am An “At-Will” Employee?
Employers will generally include an “at-will” provision in their job applications and employee handbooks. However, there are exceptions to at-will employment. When there is a written agreement or implied agreement, the employer will need to have a “good” or “just” cause for termination. Examples of such exceptions include:
Employees in public-sector jobs (those working for the government) with civil service protections.
Employees in unions that have collective bargaining agreements that contain “good cause” or “just cause” standards for termination.
Employees who have written employment contracts requiring “good cause” for termination.
Employees of employers who say or do things that override the presumption of employment-at-will thereby creating an implied agreement.
An implied contract exists when a manager continually promises a secure, long-term employment. In addition, a progressive disciplinary policy that provides various steps such as warnings and disciplinary actions before terminating an employee can be viewed as voiding the at-will assumption.
While an employer can fire an at-will employee for any reason, they cannot fire the employee for unlawful reasons. Both state and federal laws provide restrictions on the reasons for which an employer may terminate an employee. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (also known as “FEHA”) prohibits employers from terminating at-will employees for several protected reasons. For example, it is unlawful for an employer to fire an employee on the basis of their national origin, citizenship, race, disability, age, gender, sexual affiliation/preference, or religion.
Employees who can prove with evidence that they were wrongfully terminated in violation of California employment laws have every right to take legal action to pursue compensation.
Were you wrongfully terminated? Contact the Law Offices of Tanya Gomerman at (415) 545-8608 for a FREE consultation today.