In the United States, does "at will" employment basically mean that a company can fire a person at any time without cause? Aren't most companies like this?
At-will employment, as defined by Wikipedia:
At-will employment is a term used in U.S. labor law for contractual relationships in which an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish "just cause" for termination), and without warning.
Whether a company can have at-will employment contracts is governed by local labor laws. The US is mostly at-will, with some exceptions (as described in the Wikipedia article).
In Europe, most countries have some of labor law that prohibits at-will employment. You may have to give notice, and/or have a reason (see for instance this German labor law summary)
No. "At will" does not mean you can fire a person at any time without cause.
You cannot be fired for the following reasons. According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you cannot be turned down for a employment or terminated from employment for the following:
- National Origin
- Ethnic Background
- Religious Beliefs
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity are currently not protected classes on a national level, though some states do have non-discrimination laws in place.
Also, you have to consider the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Some states and local governments can add to this list (but not subtract), check your local laws for more information.
There are some exceptions to these lists. It is possible to not hire someone, or terminate someone if, for example, being pregnant or disabled would put them or other people into danger. For example, it is perfectly acceptable and reasonable not to hire a person who is blind to be a bus driver as it would be acceptable to terminate someone if a bus driver became blind. Religious organizations that are properly compliant and filed with the government, can consider hiring/termination based on religious reasons in certain contexts. A Catholic church cannot hire/fire someone for a janitorial job if they were Protestant, however you can consider a candidates religious affiliation in a position that role to the public, like a spokesperson.
In addition to the protected classes, an employer cannot fire you if you refuse to do an activity that is illegal. For instance, if you refuse to perform fraud. Obviously, if the company is willing to perform fraud, they most likely would not care about the fact it is illegal to terminate your employment.
Most HR managers want meticulous documentation, with dates and examples, of offenses. This is why some companies send out letters about warning and probation. The more they document, the less likely they can be sued for wrongful termination. America is a very litigious country.
Barring these protected classes and illegal activities, you can be fired for wearing green socks to work, if your supervisor deemed that to be a fireable offense.
So we have two answers which are somewhat in conflict and are actually both mostly right. There are clearly laws in place that governs, but the affect of the laws on the real world are often more complicated and different from what the law intended.
So the basic situation is the following: the company can fire an employee pretty much whenever they feel like it, however the employee has the right to sue the company in return. So most companies tread actually very careful when terminating an employee REGARDLESS whether the reason for termination is legal or not. They will carefully construct a case and paper record that shows that the termination is NOT due to one of the forbidden reasons.
In some cases that leads to the strange situation that official reason is not particularly related to what's really going on, it's constructed to minimize the chances of the company being sued.
The sad truth is that you can get fired for discriminatory reasons if the company construct a good paper trail that shows otherwise, and, vice versa, that people that have been fired for perfectly legitimate reasons can sue and get their job back or significant compensation that they really don't deserve.
An at will employee does not have a contract with the employer.
The employee can leave at any time. The employer can fire the person at any time.
The employee can be fired for any reason whatsoever. Period.
However, if the employee is fired because of the prohibited reason such as the ones listed by Keltari, the employer may be liable for damages including back pay and potentially reinstatement. Nonetheless the employee is still out of work, not being paid and has to litigate to get that job back.
Occasionally terms and conditions of employment may be offered by the employer or imposed by law or rule or agreement, but that does not take away from the at will status. For example, a person may be required to sign a hiring agreement that specifies discipline, confidentiality and trade secret agreements and may contain a non-compete clause among other things. That person remains an at-will employee. It is usually explicitly stated in those agreements.
For contrast, union members who work under a contract are not at will employees. They can only be terminated subject to the progressive discipline specified in the binding union contract