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  • Writer's pictureS. Anne Marie Archer

Does “At-Will” employment mean my employer can do anything they want in the workplace?

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is important to consult with legal professionals for guidance on specific legal matters.

In the United States, the concept of "at-will employment" dominates the labor landscape. At-will employment refers to the principle that both employers and employees have the freedom to terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, with or without prior notice. However, it is crucial to understand that this principle does not grant employers unrestricted power over their employees. In this blog post, I will explain the limits of at-will employment for American employers and employees, and explore the top three things employees need to protect themselves and understand their rights in an at-will employment setup.

  1. Legal Exceptions: While the default assumption is that employment is at-will, there are important exceptions recognized under the law. Employers cannot terminate employees on the basis of discrimination, such as race, gender, age, religion, disability, or national origin. Federal laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect employees from unfair employment practices. Similarly, state laws often provide additional protections, including those relating to family and medical leave, pregnancy discrimination, and whistleblowing. It is essential for employees to familiarize themselves with the applicable laws and regulations in their jurisdiction to understand their rights and protections.

  2. Employment Contracts and Collective Bargaining Agreements: While most employees in the U.S. work under at-will arrangements, some employees may have employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements that provide additional protections. These documents outline specific terms and conditions of employment, including the grounds and procedures for termination. Employees covered by such agreements have more security and may only be terminated for cause, as defined within the contract or agreement. It is crucial for employees to review and understand any employment contracts or collective bargaining agreements they have signed, as they can provide valuable protections and remedies.

  3. Retaliation and Public Policy Protections: In an at-will employment relationship, employers cannot retaliate against employees for engaging in certain protected activities. Employees have the right to report unlawful practices, such as harassment, safety violations, or illegal activities, without fear of reprisal. Whistleblower protection laws at the federal and state levels shield employees who report such activities from retaliation. Additionally, public policy exceptions may apply when an employee is terminated for refusing to engage in illegal activities or exercising legally protected rights, such as filing a workers' compensation claim or serving on a jury. Employees should be aware of these protections and feel empowered to exercise their rights without the fear of losing their jobs.

Protecting Employee Rights:

  1. Familiarize Yourself with Employment Laws: Take the time to understand federal, state, and local employment laws that safeguard your rights as an employee. Knowledge is power, and being informed about your legal protections will help you navigate any potential issues that may arise.

  2. Review Contracts and Agreements: If you have an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement, carefully read and comprehend its terms. Ensure that you understand the conditions under which termination can occur and any other rights or benefits provided.

  3. Maintain a Record of Important Documents and Incidents: Keep copies of your employment contract, performance reviews, emails, and any relevant documentation that could support your case if you face unfair treatment or termination. Additionally, document any incidents or interactions that could potentially be used as evidence in the future.

While "at-will employment" provides flexibility to both employers and employees, it is not a license for employers to engage in arbitrary or discriminatory practices. Understanding the legal exceptions, reviewing employment contracts, and knowing your rights are essential steps for employees to protect themselves. By educating themselves about their rights and taking proactive measures, employees can navigate the complexities of at-will employment while safeguarding their workplace rights.

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