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What Does “Employment at Will” Mean?

Chances are you’ve heard the term, “employment at will,” or seen it written in an employee handbook or on a job application at one time or another. Knowing what it means can help you understand your rights and know when you are eligible to take legal action against an employer.

Employment at will means an employee can be fired at any time for any reasons, aside from reasons that break a law. There are certain reasons employers are not able to terminate your employment, most of which relate to discrimination or harassment in the workplace. Aside from those, employers are free to let you go at any time and there is very little you can do to protect your job.

New York and every state other than Montana permit employers to fire employees without a reason. Montana law protects employees who have successfully completed a probation period from being fired without a stated reason from being fired. Other states provide the freedom for employers to adopt at-will policies, which must be stated when you apply for a job and are hired. You will know in advance whether you are accepting a job from which you can be terminated at any time for no reason.

What are Your Rights?

Though it appears this law makes it possible for anyone to be fired at any time, it can actually be challenging for an employer to prove an employee was fired for “no reason” or defend against a claim of an illegal job termination.

There are instances in which an employee might be given no reason for his or her dismissal, but the true reason behind the termination makes it illegal. For instance, if an older employee is let go and a younger employee is hired to replace that person, the company looks guilty of breaking a discrimination law, even if that was not their intention. If the older employee can prove a colorable claim of discrimination, the employer will need to do is show that the older employee was derelict in performing his or her job duties, broke company policy, was part of an employee downsizing program in which employees from all walks of life were terminated or some other legitimate reason.

Another instance in which you have a right to protect your employment is when your work is governed by an employment contract that promises job security. The contract must outline the reasons for which you can be terminated and specify a time for which it is valid. As long as you honor the requirements of the contract, your employer cannot terminate you. These can be individual contracts or collective bargaining agreements that protect a broad class of workers.

More on Discrimination

One of the most common reasons terminated employees fight employment at will laws is because they believe they were fired for a reason – an illegal one. Your employer is not permitted to terminate you because of anything related to your age (as in the example mentioned above), religion, race, color, gender or gender status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation. If you believe this to be the case, it is imperative you speak to an employment law attorney. Furthermore, you cannot be terminated for reporting harassment or any other misconduct, or for using family and medical leave (FMLA) benefits, serving in the military, voting, or spending time away from your job to serve jury duty.

If you believe your rights have been violated or would like to learn more about employment at will, contact Borrelli & Associates, P.L.L.C. to discuss your case.

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