What does “At-Will” Employment Mean?

With the exception of Montana, all states have some form of at-will employment that governs firing practices at public entities and private companies. If you are indeed employed “at-will,” (again, the vast majority of American workers are considered at-will) then you may generally be fired at any point in your employment for any reason. Employees in every state (again, besides Montana) are presumed to be employed at-will unless their contract expressly states otherwise. 

At-Will Exceptions

The most comprehensive federal employment law is contained in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII, most notably, offers protections for employees based on their race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Employers with 15 or more employees may not fire employees due to their inclusion in one of those classes, and employees are free to claim wrongful termination with retaliation or threat of retaliation. Other federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, have since added protected classes. 

Michigan has its own set of employment laws that prohibit discrimination of a protected-class employee that apply to all businesses, no matter the size. Illinois offers employment protections to individuals based on their sexual orientation, while Michigan does not. 

Additionally, employees who are bound by an employment contract may not be terminated outside the bounds of the agreement. On the other hand, employees may not legally resign during the time in which they are subject to the contract. Labor unions recognized to collectively bargain on behalf of dues-paying members are prominent purveyors of contracts that require termination of an employee to the result of a “just cause.”

Lastly, 42 states (including Illinois and Michigan) have codified the “public policy” exception to at-will employment. This legal doctrine prohibits employers from firing employees who refuse to commit illegal acts (or other actions that run afoul of public policy) on behalf of the company. Such actions can include committing fraud or perjury (lying while under oath). 

Conclusion

The at-will employment doctrine is supposed to protect both the employer and employee, but it often feels one-sided. In theory, employees have just as much freedom to abruptly quit their job as employers do to terminate employees. 

Since at-will employment became the norm during the 20th century, the federal government and individual states have begun to carve out exceptions to the common law doctrine. Landmark civil rights laws have given employees some semblance of assurance that they may not be legally terminated based on their race, sex, nationality, or other protected class. However, if you suspect that you still have a wrongful termination case, we encourage you to reach out to us and get started with a free consultation.