What is Employment At Will?

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Whether you’re looking for a job or you’ve just accepted a new position, you may come across the phrase “employment at will” among the documents that your new or would-be employer wants you to sign.

In every state except Montana, employees start a new job with the assumption that they can be terminated without cause. That means that your employer can let you go for any reason – or no reason – as long as it’s not a violation of your federal rights. As an employee, you also have the right to quit your job without any legal ramifications.

There are a few exceptions to the employment-at-will scenario.

Contracts and Verbal Promises

In the United States, it’s presumed that you’re entering an at-will employment situation unless specified in writing or stated explicitly by your employer. The latter of these scenarios can be impossible to prove, but a written contract is the best defense against unnecessary firing. If you have a contract that promises you steady work for at least two years barring any illegal activity on your part, then your employer has to honor that agreement. When you take a new job, make sure to read the fine print on any contracts and other documents that you sign. You don’t have a lot of recourse against at-will employers, but you should be aware of what you’re signing up for when you agree to a new position.

Federal Rights Violations

There are significant exceptions to the employment at will presumption. No matter where you live, an employer cannot fire you for protected legal reasons. These include religious associations, gender, race or military service. You can also feel free to report safety violations, illegal activities and suspicious behavior on the part of your employer without fear of retribution. If you’re fired after filing several reports of harassment, for example, then you may have a case for legal compensation. Take some time to familiarize yourself with your state and federal laws regarding termination. Employers may be able to fire you without cause, but they’re not allowed to break state or federal law in doing so.

Job Security vs. Personal Freedom

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the U.S. is in the minority when it comes to the at-will work presumption. Most countries put heavier restrictions on employers, demanding that they only fire employees for justifiable reasons. Here, it’s assumed that both employers and employees favor the at-will scenario because it allows for greater freedom on both sides. You don’t have to stay at a job you dislike, and an employer doesn’t have to retain employees who fail to meet their expectations.

The flip side to at-will employment is that there’s less job security. An employer can let you go without any reason at all, making it difficult to know how you might have improved or what you did wrong. Employees might also take advantage of this system by hopping from job to job, which may leave an employer scrambling to hire and train appropriate replacements.

Unless you live in Montana, where the state has adopted greater protections for workers against arbitrary termination, you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of signing an employment contract. Even with employment at will presumption, many employers won’t fire their workers unnecessarily because doing so goes against their best interests.

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