A Three-Minute History
A concept born with the 1800s Industrial Revolution , “at will” employment is proclaimed to survive in every American state except Montana as the right of either employer or employee to terminate their relationship for any or no reason at any time, with or without advance notice.
Yet, the principle has changed significantly over the past century.
“At will” employment originally included an employer’s unqualified right to fire anyone, “at will,” for any reason. Addressing the realities of unequal bargaining power between management and rank-and-file workers, the 1935 National Labor Relations Act banned terminating employees for their union membership or other pro-union support. In the same period, organized labor’s growing influence established standing employment contracts in key industries that required “good cause” justification for a union member’s termination. Similar “good cause” requirements have evolved to protect government employees.
The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 signaled further (and overdue) protections against management’s unquestioned abilities to end employment relationships, making it illegal to terminate for the race, color, sex, national origin or religion of the worker. The Act’s principle of “classifications” protected from workplace discrimination has since grown to an extensive list under federal and state laws. These include the federal Age Discrimination Employment Act shielding employees 40-plus years old and the Americans with Disabilities Act similarly safeguarding disabled workers otherwise qualified to competently perform assigned labors.
Thus, while “at will” is still the presumed employment relationship in California and many other states, termination for “any reason” no longer means what it did 100 years ago. Termination for “any reason except those found by Congress, a state legislature or the courts to be an illegal reason” would be more accurate.