What Does At-Will Employee Mean?


An at-will employee is one who can leave and be let go at any time. They usually do not have the same protection and benefits as a contracted employee. However, there are times when a provision or conduct entitled the at-will employee to be fired with good cause, meaning an honest and fair reason. The court makes this decision on a case by case basis.

Definition of “At-Will” Employee

“At will” allows the employee to leave his or her job at any time and allows an employer to fire an employee at any time, no reason necessary.[1] However, there are still limitations. An employer may not fire an employee based on:

  • Race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion[2]
  • Political beliefs[3]
  • Requested time off legally-eligible to take[4] or

  • Retaliation[5]

Protected Leaves of Absences

Even if an employee is at will, there are times when an employer many not fire the employee. These include times of absences like maternity leave, being injured on the job, serving as a witness or on a jury, military service, serious health conditions of close family members, and voting in a statewide election.[6]


There are times when an employer cannot fire an at-will employee without cause. These cases include express and implied contracts.[7] An express contract occurs when there is an explicit offer and acceptance – it can be oral. An implied contract arises when looking at the circumstances around the agreement, the parties’ conduct indicates a contract.

An express contract may include a provision or understanding that firing can only occur with “good cause.”[8] This means the employer cannot just fire an employee for no reason; there has to be a reasonable and honest reason to do so. “In deciding whether good cause exists, there must be a balance between the employer’s interest in operating its business efficiently and profitably and the employee’s interest in continued employment.”[9]

Courts may still require good cause for firing an at-will employee even if there is not an express provision. Courts look at the circumstances surrounding the agreement and the conduct of the parties. There are many factors that are analyzed when determining if an implied contract has formed. These include:

  • Polices or practices of the employer

  • Employee’s longevity of service

  • Assurances of continued employment and

  • Practices of industry.[10]

Compassionate, Personalized Legal Services

We serve and protect employees’ rights throughout California.  Our attorney and staff dedicate themselves to providing personal attention to each client. We will remain available and attentive to answer any questions or concerns that may arise and will always keep you updated on any developments in your case.

Learn More About Employment Law: Table of Contents

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Legal Reference

[1] Cal. Lab. Code, § 2922

[2] Gov. Code, § 12940, subd. (a)

[3] Labor Code, § 1101

[4][4] Labor Code, § 1101

[5] Labor Code, § 1102.5.

[6] Labor Code § 212

[7] Foley v. Interactive Data Corp. (1988) 47 Cal.3d 654, 678

[8] Foley v. Interactive Data Corp. (1988) 47 Cal.3d 654, 680

[9] Cotran v. Rollins Hudig Hall Internat., Inc., 17 Cal. 4thh 93, 69 Cal. Rptr. 2d 900, 948 P.2d 412 (1998).

[10] Foley v. Interactive Data Corp. (1988) 47 Cal.3d 654, 680; Lazar v. Superior Court, (1996) 12 Cal.4th 631,642

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