What is an at will employment state?

California is an at will employment state. But what does that mean?

The California Labor Code states that all employees are assumed to be “at will.” This means that you or your employer may end the employment relationship for any reason at any time, even without warnings or serious performance problems. At-will employees are different from contract employees, whose contracts (often, a union agreement) may specify the conditions and circumstances under which a company may terminate the worker.

Sometimes even though the employee is technically at-will, a court may find that certain contract-like conditions have emerged in the employment arrangements. Employees who have worked for the same employer for many years and had exemplary track-records (such as documented, outstanding reviews, promotions, raises) are more likely considered by courts to have an unwritten (i.e., "implied") employment contract. Employers may also be found in breach of such an implied contract if they fail to follow their own policies in regard to discipline and termination, or fail to clearly communicate in an employee handbook that employment is at-will. However, such situations can be difficult to prove, so it is important to speak with an experienced employment attorney.

The most important thing to be aware of is that even if your employment is at-will, you do not give up all your rights under state and federal law. Employees may not be terminated for illegal reasons, such as discrimination, harassment or in retaliation complaining about any illegal activity by the employer or its managers. Violation of these laws, whether against at-will or contract employees, can leave an employer liable for wrongful termination.

McCormack & Erlich specializes in wrongful termination, whether of at-will or contract employees. For more information see our Wrongful Termination FAQ, or contact us directly.

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