Many jobs include the phrase “at-will” in the employee description. In general, at-will means an employee can be fired for any reason at any time. You can fight the termination, but you have limited legal rights. As an employee, you should make time to understand exactly what this phrase means.
How do you Know if You’re at At-Will Employee?
The law assumes that you are an at-will employee unless you can prove otherwise via written documentation or oral statements. Check the job application, your employee manual, written policies, job evaluations and other documents to verify how your employer views you.
Review All Employee Paperwork
Before you’re officially hired, you are typically given several documents to review. These documents could include:
- Employment application
- Employment contract
- Employee handbook
- Job offer letter
Always read these papers thoroughly before you sign them. Look for language that declares you’re an at-will employee or describes how your employer can fire you without good cause or for no reason. Most employers include language like this in the documents that protect their right to terminate at-will employees.
When to Sign and Not Sign At-Will Agreement
You don’t legally have to sign at at-will agreement. However, your employer may refuse to hire you or fire you if you don’t sign it. Also, remember that many employers will try to work out differences and disagreements with employees rather than fire them on the spot. You may not have a choice about signing an at-will agreement, but it doesn’t guarantee that you will automatically be terminated the first time you make a mistake or disagree with your boss.
Think twice about signing an at-will agreement if your employer promises not to fire you during a probation period or if you make mistakes. Signing an at-will agreement voids the verbal agreement, leaving you with no legal recourse to fight it.
Know Your Rights as an At-Will Employee
At-will employees may be terminated for any cause and at any time as long as the termination is legal. There are several exceptions.
Discrimination – If your employer must follow federal and state non-discrimination laws, you cannot be fired because of your race, gender, religion or other protected status.
Whistle blowing – If you complain about illegal activities on the job, including discrimination, harassment or safety violations, your employer cannot fire you.
Exercising your legal rights – Your employer cannot fire you while you are on medical leave, serving in the military, on jury duty or performing other legal rights you have as an employee.
Protect your employee rights when you understand what it means to work at-will. You can always ask your attorney to clarify the details before you sign your next employment agreement.