Paul Glusman, Attorney at Law

At-Will Employment

If you have been fired without cause, you are not alone. Most employees in the United States work for employers without an employment contract, and as such, may be fired without warning. For more information on what rights you may have under an employment contract or as an at-will employee, read below.

  1. Can my employer terminate me without a good reason?
  2. Are there any exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine?

1. Can my employer terminate me without a good reason?

It depends. If you are working under an employment contract, the terms and conditions of that contract will dictate what your employer can fire you for. If you are not under an employment contract, you are considered an at-will employee. As an at-will employee, your employer may dismiss you without reason at any time, as long as that reason isn't illegal under state or federal law. For example, your employer may not fire you because of your race or sex, or because you engaged in whistleblowing because state and federal laws protect people from discrimination and from retaliation for whistleblowing.

Additionally, as an at-will employee, without any contractual obligation to continue work, you may quit your job for any reason at any time. You cannot be forced to work for an employer and you don't have to give your employer a reason for quitting.

2. Are there any exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine?

Yes, there are several exceptions. You are not an at-will employee if you have a contract, including a union collective bargaining agreement. If you are covered under an employment contract, you can only be terminated as the contract terms and conditions permit. If the employer does not follow the contract in terminating or disciplining you, you may have a breach of contract claim and should consider speaking to an attorney.

A handbook or personnel code may also be a contract, depending on the state. However, it may be that only certain clauses or issues in the handbook or personnel code are considered part of the contract. You should consult your own state's law to determine if your state considers handbooks to be contracts between employers and employees and to what extent.

If you are a federal employee, you are always protected from any termination that violates the United States Constitution or the constitution of the state in which you work. For example, a federal employee's rights to freedom of speech, association, religion, or freedom from unlawful search and seizure may be at issue when they are terminated.

For more information about the rights of federal employees see the Federal Employees Legal Survival Guide and our Federal Employee Discrimination page.

An employee may not be terminated for an illegal reason such as their race, sex, age, religion, nationality, or disability. If you believe you were terminated for such a reason, please see our section on discrimination for additional information about the different types of illegal discrimination and how to file a discrimination claim.