ABCs of Employment Law: At-Will Employment Doctrine

According to Betterteam, 74% of U.S. workers are considered at-will employees. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an employer or a worker, understanding the ins and outs of at-will employment, including key exceptions, is crucial to understanding your employment rights. We’re here to run you through the basics of the at-will employment doctrine to help inform you for the future.

What is At-Will Employment?

As the Wisconsin Supreme Court stated as early as 1871, the at-will employment doctrine means that “either party is at liberty to terminate the service at any time, no definite period for which the service [is] to continue having been agreed upon.” Simply put, at-will employment means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, and an employee can choose to leave an employer at any time for any reason. This contrasts with “for-cause” employment, where an employee can only be terminated for specific reasons outlined in their contract or by law.

Who is Considered an At-Will Employee?

The at-will doctrine is the default employee-employer relationship in the United States unless there is a written contract or collective bargaining agreement in place that specifies otherwise. There are also certain situations where an employee may have grounds to file a lawsuit against an employer for wrongful termination. For example, if an employer details a corrective action process for underperforming employees, it is at least implied that this process should be carried out before an employee can be terminated. You can learn about at-will doctrine exceptions on Thomas Reuters Practical Law.

What are Examples of Wrongful Termination?

There are several exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. We have included a few examples from Mighty Recruiter for you below.

  • Breach of Contract: If an employer or employee breaks expectations outlined in signed contracts at any point during the employee-employer relationship, this can be considered an exception to at-will employment.
  • Discrimination: Employers cannot terminate an employee for discriminatory reasons like age, religion, or sexual orientation. This may give an employee reason to sue their employer for damages.
  • Retaliation: This refers to a situation where an employer terminates an employee as a direct result of an employee exercising their legal rights towards an employer. Employees may be able to sue their employer in this situation as well.
  • Public policy: Employers cannot fire employees for reasons that contradict public policy and doing so creates an at-will employment exemption.

Overall, the at-will doctrine gives employers and employees flexibility in the employment relationship, but it can also create uncertainty for employees who do not have the protection of a written contract or collective bargaining agreement. It is important for both employers and employees to understand their rights and responsibilities under the at-will doctrine.

Do you have questions regarding at-will employment that we haven’t addressed? Our attorneys at Walcheske & Luzi can provide you with consultation to help you better understand your rights as an employer or employee. Fill out our contact form and one of our attorneys will be in touch.