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Is it impossible for at-will employees to be wrongfully terminated?

On Behalf of | Oct 20, 2023 | Wrongful Termination

Many workers are considered to be at-will employees. This term basically means that a business relationship between an employer and employee only exists because of the will of both parties to continue that relationship. At any time that a person wants to quit or an employer wants to fire that worker, either action can be taken without breaking the law. At least, under most circumstances.

This is different than workers who have rights per employment contracts. They may have a contract that says they can only be fired for cause, for example, meaning that the employer will have to show that there was a valid reason for the firing. A worker with a contract may also be broadly obligated to stay at the company until the term of their contract expires. An at-will worker, on the other hand, is fully within their rights to quit at a moment’s notice – or without any notice at all.

What does this mean in re: wrongful termination concerns?

Unfortunately, this creates a bit of confusion concerning wrongful termination. Some people believe that it can’t happen to at-will employees because they can be fired at any time. Some employers even believe that at-will workers cannot be wrongfully fired or laid off.

But, the stipulation with at-will employment is that, although a reason for termination may not be needed, termination still cannot be initiated for an illegal reason. If it violates an employee’s rights, then it may still be a wrongful termination, even though they were classified as an at-will employee.

Say that someone is fired because they convert to a new religion or a worker is fired because they are just getting “too old for the workplace.” These are examples of religious and age discrimination. Workers also cannot be fired because of their gender, national origin, race and other characteristics protected under the law. There are various protected classes in the United States that still have to be honored, even under at-will employment, as do the rights of workers to engage in legally-protected activities.

This means that employees certainly may be illegally fired, even if an employer insists that they have the right to do so. In a situation like this, it’s crucial that employees both understand the law and the legal steps they can take to safeguard their rights and interests. Seeking legal guidance is a good way to start.