What does at will employment mean?

At will employment means that the employer or the worker may end the employment relationship at any time. When an employment is at will, the employer can terminate employees for no reason.

Author: Brad Nakase, Attorney

Email  |  Call (888) 600-8654

In the United States, employment is considered to be “at-will”. The United States is unique in this way, being one of the only countries in the world where employment is largely “at-will.” In most countries, an employer cannot terminate an employee unless he or she has a legitimate reason to do so. So, why does the United States adopt the employment at will policy? It largely comes down to our respect for freedom of contract, respect for the employer, and the belief that both employers and employee prefer the ability to terminate or quit for any reason over job security.

What is employment at will? “At-will” means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason at any time without getting into legal trouble. The exception is that the reason cannot be illegal in nature. Similarly, an employee can leave a job at any time for any reason without facing any legal consequences.

At-will employment not only applies to ending an employment contract. It also means that an employer can change the terms of an employment contract with no advance notice or consequences. This means that an employer can raise or lower wages, get rid of benefits, or reduce paid time off and face no legal consequences for these actions. This can be reduced to a rather harsh reality: in the United States, the at-will system means that an employee can be suddenly fired for no reason, get their hours or wages cut without notice, and lose their benefits in one fell swoop. All of this is legal.

Example: Amber has been working at a make-up store for the past three years and is a loyal employee. One day, her boss announces some “necessary changes,” including a reduction in the staff’s hourly wage. Amber is now paid $18 an hour instead of $23 an hour. She is furious, mostly because she will have to move apartments, as her current place is now too expensive for her to afford. She will also have more difficulty paying bills, and she won’t be able to afford the pet dog she was planning on adopting. Her whole life has been upended. When she complains her boss, he merely shrugs and says there’s nothing he can do. When Amber continues to protest the changes, he fires her on the spot. Though upset, Amber has no recourse. Legally, her boss could reduce her wages, and he could also fire her for no reason.

Contract Modification to Employment At Will

In the United States, “at-will” employment is default unless otherwise stated in the employment contract. For instance, a company’s employment contract may state a specific employment time period (6 months, 1 year, etc.) or require that termination has cause. Usually, companies negotiate employment agreements with high-level employees exclusively. Employees represented in collective bargaining agreements can attain the right to only be terminated for a just reason.

What are just reasons? These generally include poor employee performance, misconduct or bad behavior, and economic necessity. It is possible that an employment contract would detail the reasons that can lead to termination.

In California, the state’s Labor Code defines just reasons as “a fair and honest cause or reason, regulated by good faith on the part of the employer.”

Some types of employees do not have at-will employment. These include employees in the public sector, who are protected by civil service laws. Also included are employees represented by unions, who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Executives also may negotiate their employment contracts, requiring “good cause” for termination.

Example: Justin is hired at an office in Brentwood. When he is given his employment contract, he notices that it is different to others he has signed in the past, which were expressly at-will. This time, his employment has a term of one year, and he can only be fired for a legitimate reason. He notices that these reasons are listed on the contract. His employment will be terminated if he engages in misconduct, does not meet performance benchmarks, or if the company needs to make financial adjustments. Six months later, the company goes through economic hardship when their sales tank, and Justin is one of the employees let go. He has no legal recourse, however, because he was fired for an acceptable reason, as stated in his contract.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

Because at-will employment can sometimes result in harsh consequences for employees, there are certain “common law” exceptions that can be used to challenge at-will termination. These exceptions may be divided into three categories:

  • Implied covenant of good faith
  • Public policy
  • Implied contract

That said, at-will employment is hard to challenge, and an employee will be hard-pressed to prove that his or her circumstance qualifies as one of these exceptions. It will also depend on the particular jurisdiction if these exceptions are recognized as legitimate.

Public Policy to At Will Employment

This is the most widely recognized common law exception. The “public policy” exception protects employees from termination if the reasons behind the firing violate a public interest. Most states define public policy as it is expressed in state constitutions and statutes. A few states might consider codes of ethics and greater ideas of the public good and civic duty.

According to many Los Angeles employment attorneys, there are four categories of public policy exceptions. An employee may protest at-will termination if he or she:

  • Employee exercises a statutory right. Example: An employee files a claim under the state workers’ compensation law.

  • Employee refuses to perform an act that is illegal under state law. Example: An employer asks an employee to commit perjury at a trial and fires the employee when they refuse.
  • Employee engages in acts that are in the public interest. Example: An employee reports to jury duty, and his boss fires them for taking time off to do their civic duty.

  • Employee reports a violation of the la. Example: An employee reports his boss’ use of child labor, and the employer fires the employee for reporting him.

Implied Contract

A contract of employment may be implied. Implied contracts are recognized in 41 states and the District of Columbia, but they can still be difficult to prove even in these jurisdictions. How is an implied contract formed? It is possible to be spoken, with an employer saying, “You’re great, you’ve got the job for life!” or “We give everyone a second chance.” These types of statements imply an exception to at-will employment – that the employee has some protections. It is also possible that written statements in employer’s handbooks or policies can imply a contract with at-will exceptions.

Therefore, even if there is no definitive written contract between employer and employee, an employee can still expect to be employed for a specific time or indefinitely based on a verbal statement. They might also expect to only be fired for cause, based either on a verbal statement or a statement written in an employee handbook, for example.

Legally speaking, courts do not take seriously language promising permanent employment. They still consider the employment to be at-will. That said, employers can still protect themselves from legal proceedings by providing a clear disclaimer on written materials saying that policies and procedures do not reflect contractual rights.

Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

Some states acknowledge an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in employment. Interpretation of the implied covenant varies from requiring legitimate cause for termination to banning terminations made in bad faith. A bad faith termination might be an employer firing an older employee to avoid having to pay retirement benefits. Still, there have been fairly few cases where employers have been found at fault under the implied covenant of good faith theory.

Additional Tort-Based Claims

At-will employees can also sue their employers for additional reasons. One of these is purposeful interference with a contract. This applies when a supervisor or coworker with a malicious motive succeeds in getting the employee fired.

There is also purposeful infliction of emotional distress. This occurs when extreme conduct either purposefully or recklessly causes serious emotional distress. Still, in some jurisdictions, even severe psychological abuse might not be enough to win a case against one’s employer.

Promissory Estoppel

An employer cannot fire an employee if the employee can prove:

  • The employer clearly promised work
  • The employee relied on the employer’s promise
  • The employee’s trust was foreseeable and reasonable
  • The employee suffered injury

It is hard for employees to file a claim against their employer based on promissory estoppel. It is argued that an employee cannot rely on a promise of work if the work, by nature, is at-will.

Example: Alan is hired by a tech company in San Francisco. Since he lives in Los Angeles, Alan excitedly moves his family north to a new home in the Bay Area. But a week before he is supposed to start work, Alan’s new employer terminates him, having found someone they like better. Since Alan had a reasonable expectation of employment and relied on his employer for that employment, he has a promissory estoppel claim and may seek damages.

Statutory Exceptions to At-Will

There are also some statutory exceptions to at-will employment.

Illegal Discrimination

Federal and State discrimination laws prevent employers from making employment decisions based on an employee’s race, religion, age, sex, disability, national origin, or veteran status. Some states may also protect employees based on other factors, such as sexual orientation.

Still, it should be remembered that discrimination laws protect a member of a certain class from being fired because of their membership in that class. They do not protect from termination on other grounds.

Example: Sean has a disability that requires him to use a wheelchair. Last year, he got a job working at a country club. When Sean’s employer fires him, Sean wonders whether he was fired because of his need to use a wheelchair. However, his employer if aware of discrimination statues and would not fire someone based on their disability. Sean’s boss actually fired him because he was taking food from the country club kitchens to cater parties at his own house.


Whistleblower protection is normally provided for public sector employees, and protection for private employees is usually more limited. In seventeen states, employees are protected from retaliation if they report an employer’s illegal activity. This activity may include workplace health and safety, accounting fraud, environmental protection, and discrimination. Employees have the burden of finding the statute that applies to their particular situation.

Montana’s Good Cause Rule

With the Montana Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act of 1987 (WEDEA), the state of Montana introduced a course of action for employees who maintain they were fired without just cause. At present, Montana is the only state to have passed such an expansive law.

The state requires that after a designated probationary period, an employee can only be dismissed for good cause. It also gives an employee the right to challenge a dismissal in court. Damages are limited to four years of lost wages.

Advice for At-Will Employers

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) looks closely at employer policies, so there are certain practices that at-will employers should use to protect themselves from legal action.

First, an employer should put an employment-at-will statement on the job application and in the offer letter. This way, before he or she quits a previous job or moves, a prospective employee understands that the employment is at-will.

Second, an employer should have new hires sign an employment-at-will acknowledgment on their first day work.

Third, an employer should put an employment-at-will statement in the employee handbook.

Fourth, an employer should avoid strict discipline policies and instead say that breaking company rules “may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.”

Fifth, an employer should not make casual assurances of job security during interviews or as an answer to employee or applicant questions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics explains at will employment doctrine.


Though there are some exceptions to at-will employment, in the United States at-will employment remains an overwhelming feature of the employment landscape.

Have a quick question? We answered nearly 2000 FAQs.

See all blogs: Business | Corporate | Employment Law

Most recent blogs:

What is paid time off?

Paid time off - also known as personal time off - is when an employee takes off work while still getting paid by the employer. Likewise, personal time off is when an employee gets paid or unpaid while away from work.

What does an employment lawyer do?

An employment lawyer help employers and employees understand their respective rights and obligations, such as wages, wrongful termination, overtime, PTO, disability, discrimination, harassment, etc.

13 Wrongful Termination Examples

Employees wins millions of dollars in wrongful termination lawsuits against their employers. If an employee has been dismissed for the reason that is deemed illegal in California, then they may be able to sue their former employer for wrongful termination.

How do I know if I am exempt from overtime pay?

As of 2023, to be exempt from overtime pay, you must make at least $62,400.00 per year or $5166.66 per month. To be classified as an exempt employee, your salary must be at least twice California's minimum wage for full-time employment. 

Women’s Rights When Experiencing Sexual Harassment at Work

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) makes it illegal for employers to allow anyone to be sexually harassed at work by anyone else, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or sex. Women who experience sexual harassment at work may experience a range of negative consequences, including mental and physical health problems, lower earnings, and career interruptions.

How to respond to a notice of PAGA lawsuit?

5 steps to defend a PAGA lawsuit: 1) contact a PAGA lawyer after getting a PAGA Notice, 2) locate the arbitration agreement, if any, 3) determine if the safe harbor provision of the PAGA state applies, 4) compile a list of all employees that were similarly situated, 5) Collect the employee's manual.

What happens if you get an EDD audit?

An EDD audit is a process of verification that you have correctly withheld and reported personal income tax for wages paid to your employees. If you get an EDD audit, you may be liable for a wide range of fines, interest, and penalties on taxes that you owe.

What are the 4 Caregiver rights in California?

California caregivers are entitled to rest breaks, meal breaks, minimum wage, overtime pay for working over 8 hours per day, and double time for working over 12 hours, including overnight stays. Employers often face lawsuits from caregivers for violating caregivers’ rights, such as basic wages.

Terminating Employee with Cancer

Cancer is protected under the Disability Act, which protects an employee from retaliation and discrimination because of health impairment related to a cancer diagnosis. An employer cannot discriminate against an employee upon discovering that an employee has a severe illness or cancer.

Can I be fired for work restrictions?

No, you cannot be fired for work restriction if it is based on disability. However, an employer can fire an employee in some situations if the employee has work restrictions.

Annualized Compensation

An annualized compensation is to a predetermined gross pay per month paid to an employee for twelves months, totaling an estimated annual income.  In other words, annualized compensation - also known as annualized salary - is an estimate of how much pay an employee will earn over the course of a year if they were to work the full year. For example, teachers commonly do not work summer months and therefore need to annualized their salary for reporting taxes.

Is it illegal to pay my employees late?

Yes, it is illegal to pay workers late. When an employer didn't pay a worker on payday, the employee can sue and the employer has to pay waiting time penalty in the amount of 10 days' wages.

What is prevailing wage in California?

Prevailing wage in California is the minimum hourly rate employees earn on public work project. All workers employed on public works projects must be paid the prevailing wage. Our prevailing wage lawyer can protect your rights if you're not paid the California prevailing wage.

What qualifies as wrongful termination?

A termination is wrongful if the employer fires or laid off the employee on the employee based on a protected class such as sex, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or age.

At Will Employment

At will employment means that the employer or the worker may end the employment relationship at any time. When an employment is at will, the employer can terminate employees for no reason.

Can You Get Fired for Looking for Another Job?

Firing an employee for looking for another job is legal under California Labor Code § 2922. Employees in California are employed on an “at-will” which means the employee or employer can terminate the working relationship at any time for any reason.

Can an employee be terminated while on medical leave?

It depends on the reason the employee is on medical leave. Under the FMLA, an employee cannot be terminated simply because they take leave. An employee is free to take medical leave without fear of losing their job. However, if there is a reason unrelated to the medical leave, an employer does have the right to terminate an employee.

Can Slack Admins Read DMs?

Yes. Slack admin and employer can read every DMs, private channels, private messages sent between team members. Employers on either Slack's free tier or paid tier need to submit a request to Slack before they can access your private chats.

Four Hour Minimum Pay

Yes - under California employment law, when an employee is scheduled to work an eight-hour shift, and the work is canceled, the employer must pay a minimum of four hours.

How far back do PAGA claims go?

A PAGA claim is generally one year from the date of the last employment law violation on which the PAGA claim is based.

FICA Withholding: What is FICA tax on my paycheck?

What is FICA tax on my paycheck? FICA is a federal wage tax. FICA taxes requires withholding from an employee’s gross earnings: 6.2% for social security and 1.45% for Medicare. The employer matches these percentages for a total of 15.3%.

Why Does EDD Do a Benefit Audit?

The EDD conducts benefit audits to help pay Unemployment Insurance benefits to only eligible claimants only, prevents fraud in the UI program, and helps companies control UI costs. The EDD’s responsibility is to collect payroll taxes and conduct payroll audits of businesses.

What Does PAGA Mean in a Lawsuit?

The word PAGA is an acronym for the Private Attorney General Act, which is the Labor Code that authorizes employees to file a lawsuit to recover civil penalties for themselves and other employees. PAGA confers a private right of action to individuals to prosecute under PAGA and incentivizes the employee to keep 25% of collected civil penalties.

Can my employer call my doctor?

Generally, yes, your employer can call your doctor; however, the questions your employer ask is limited and protected by HIPAA Privacy Law. Your employer has the right to contact your doctor to verify the authenticity of a doctor’s note but cannot ask about your medical condition or diagnosis.

What Qualifies as an EEOC Complaint?

The EEOC is a federal agency that investigates workplace discrimination and harassment based on race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, medical status, and disability. There are time limits for filing a complaint with the EEOC.

EEOC Complaint Process

Before filing an EEOC complaint, employees should understand the entire EEOC complaint process. This article answers many Frequently Asked Questions on the EEOC complaint process.

Do guys get paid paternity leave?

A father is eligible for paternity leave if three conditions are met: 1) welcome a new child within the first twelve months; 2) Paid into the State Disability Insurance; 3) Has not taken more than eight weeks of paternity leave in the past twelve months.

California PTO Payout Law

California law declares vacation time to be earned wages, and vacation time is accumulated as work is performed. So, an employee who has the right to ten days of vacation per year will after six months of work earn five days of vacation time.

Contact our employment attorney for a free consultation concerning employment at will.

Please tell us your story:

1 + 3 = ?

© Copyright | Nakase Law Firm (2019)