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Wrongful Termination of At-Will Employees

Theory is one thing, practice another.

In theory, “at-will” employment means neither employer nor employee are obligated to continue the relationship for any period of time.  Either may terminate for any reason or for no reason at all, with or without advance notice.

In practice, some company executives and personnel managers are sometimes surprised that “at-will” employment status does not give them a supposed water-tight prerogative to fire a problem employee regardless of circumstances.   An employer can let an at-will employee go for no reason or any legal reason, but of course has no right to fire an individual for an illegal reason.  For example:

Discrimination Protections – The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it unlawful for employers to terminate any employee due to race, gender, skin color, religion, or national origin.  More recent state and federal laws protect against employment discrimination due to age, mental or physical disability, pregnancy, marital status, sexual preference, medical condition, genetic traits, and several other bases.

Worker’s Compensation Protections – Businesses cannot and should not fire an employee for filing, or for announcing an intention to file, a workers’ compensation claim for an injury he or she claims was sustained on-the job.

Whistleblower Protections – Employers cannot retaliate against an employee who reports alleged misconduct, law violations, or unsafe conditions in his workplace, either internally or to a public regulatory or enforcement agency.

Contractual Protections – Businesses sometimes have written policies specifying required disciplinary or termination procedures.  Companies must follow those rules or be open to a wrongful termination claim from a disappointed former worker.