It’s important to know whether or not an employer you choose to work for is in an at-will employment state, whether you live in an at-will employment state, or whether or not your employer will hire you under at-will employment status. Okay, so I’ve thrown the words ‘at-will’ around a lot already, but what exactly is at-will employment?
According to Wikipedia, at-will employment is defined: In most common law jurisdictions of the United States, contracts of employment without a definite term of service (for example, those employment contracts that are not in writing or part of a collective bargaining agreement) are held to be “at will” which means that the employer may dismiss the employee at any time for any reason.
Now, some states have actually enacted laws or regulations in order to affect employment status in a state. Some states, Montana being the most notable, actually prohibit at-will employment and require an employer to show cause for termination.
Let’s look at what exactly at-will means in regular language. Basically, at-will employment means that you or the employer can choose to terminate the employment arrangement at any time for any reason or for no reason at all. Obviously, this seems to benefit the employer much more than it benefits the employee, because, without an actual hiring contract, most employees, even when not working in an at-will state or for an at-will employer, can pretty much quit their jobs at any time.
Now, the way this protects employers is by virtually eliminating the ability for an employee to seek a civil remedy in a wrongful termination lawsuit. An employer can simply say, “Sorry, we don’t you need anymore,” and in an at-will state for an at-will employer with no hiring contract, that is good enough.
Now, this doesn’t eliminate an employee’s protection under the right to sue for wrongful termination, if the employee feels they have been unfairly terminated due to discrimination or a violation of civil rights. For example, if an employee is disabled or becomes disabled, and then they are terminated without cause, under the at-will employment status the employer uses, but the employee feels they can prove discrimination in the decision, they can still seek a legal remedy. However, this does make the burden of proof of discrimination fall back to the employee to prove discrimination rather than on the employer to prove they didn’t.
While there is no clear proof of why at-will employment has been brought about, it seems clear that one of the obvious reasons for it remaining is because of the benefit this provides to businesses, especially big businesses, which are usually the targets of frivolous wrongful termination lawsuits. Even if the employer is found not guilty or responsible for a wrongful termination, the cost of the legal fees, the court fees, and the time to fight it in court does mean loss of revenue, and that eventually extends to consumer’s pocketbooks.
With at-will employment in place, but the burden of proof of wrongful termination now laying squarely on the employee’s feet, it is less likely an employee who was not truly wrongfully terminated will seek legal remedy just to make a quick buck. The downside, of course, is in that fact that people whose civil rights have been violated, who have been wrongfully terminated, must fight a much harder battle to prove this in court than ever before.
Unless you live in Montana, it is important to know what your state’s position on at-will employment is, and what the company you may end up working for has for policies on at-will employment too, before you find yourself in a position of being terminated without cause. It’s always best to know what your protections and limitations in an employment arrangement are before you need them, not after.