At Will Employment: What Does It Mean?

At Will Employment: What Does It Mean?

by Aug 4, 2017Employment Law

For first time job applicants and new employees, the idea of “at will employment” often comes as a bit of a surprise. For those that take the time to read and understand the language, finding out that they can be fired at any time, for any reason (with a few exceptions) is often troubling and can even potentially dissuade them from accepting a position.

The reality however, is that at will employment is overwhelmingly the rule rather than the exception in most private sector employment scenarios. In fact, Montana is the only state which protects employees — once they have completed an initial “probationary period”, they cannot be fired without good cause.

Am I An At-Will Employee?

The law generally presumes that you are employed at will unless you can prove otherwise, usually through written documents relating to your employment or oral statements your employer has made.

The most common exceptions to at will employment are those who work in local, state, or federal government positions which often are unionized jobs or have been elected to office. For unionized employees, there is typically a probationary period that, once passed, means that those employees are no longer at will, but can then only be fired for good cause.

Exceptions To At Will Employment

There are some instances where at-will employees cannot be fired, due to state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Employers that are subject to federal and state laws prohibiting job discrimination cannot fire an employee solely based on things like race, religion, or gender. Additionally, an employee cannot be fired for complaining about witnessing or being forced to participate in illegal activity, harassment or discrimination, or health and safety violations in the workplace.

Do I Have A Choice?

Because at will employment is so pervasive in the United States, it’s very hard to avoid — especially in part-time and entry level jobs.

Many employers ask job applicants and new employees to sign a written statement agreeing that they are (or will be) employed at will. That statement might appear in an employment application, an employment contract or offer letter that the employer asks you to sign and return, an acknowledgment form for an employee handbook, or elsewhere.

For those who seek a more secure employment contract, the most common avenues (as mentioned previously) are jobs in sectors that have a unionized workforce. Be careful though, unions have their own drawbacks that prospective employees should be aware of before committing to.

Employers Don’t Fire Great Employees

While the whole idea of at will employment can seem a bit scary and one sided, the truth is that if you’re a hard worker and have great job performance, your employer is unlikely to fire you.

When unemployment is low (like it currently is in the United States) that means the pool of available job applicants is low, which forces employers to offer more incentives to attract new employees. Existing employees that are top performers are likely to get promotions, raises, and other incentives to remain at their current employer, because finding and training new people is very expensive.

So, while at will employment may not seem like the ideal scenario, the best way to avoid getting fired is to be a good employee, have a positive attitude, and pursue new opportunities as they arise.


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