At-Will Employment

HR Glossary for HR Professionals

Glossary of the most common HR terms and acronyms to assist professionals navigating the ever-growing and ever-changing world of HR terminology.

At-Will Employment

What is At-Will Employee?

An at-will employee is an individual who can be fired at any time for any legal reason. This means that under at-will employment, if the employer decides to lay off that employee, the individual has limited recourse under the law to fight the dismissal. 

On the other hand, that same employee can leave their job at any time, for any reason, without legal consequences.

Which States Recognize At-Will Employment?

Almost every state recognizes at-will employment, but some institute limits on the conditions of hire and dismissal. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has compiled a comprehensive resource detailing each state’s relationship to these terms.

At-Will Exceptions

According to the NCSL, the three major common law exceptions include public policy, implied contract, and implied covenant of good faith.

Advantages vs. Disadvantages of At-Will Employment

For employers, many of the advantages of at-will employment come in the form of forgoing costs associated with hiring and firing workers, such as severance pay. Another is simply the flexibility to lay off a worker whose performance doesn’t meet the task at hand, or who may have breached company policies. 

On the other hand, one of the main advantages for at-will employees is also flexibility, particularly being able to leave when you want to leave. This can be seen as a disadvantage for the employer, depending on the project or work situation. Another disadvantage for at-will employees can be unstable job security, which comes from being able to lose your job at a moment’s notice.

Wrongful Termination and At-Will Employment

While the conditions of at-will employment typically dictate that an employee or employer may end a working relationship at any time, wrongful termination can play a factor in the dismissal of a worker. 

For example, wrongful termination is applicable when the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing has been violated, meaning that a worker has been treated unfairly or dishonestly. Additionally, wrongful termination applies when a dismissal violates anti-discrimination laws at local, state, or federal levels.

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