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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?

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    I don't see why this is getting downvotes. It may be obvious to those in the US but it isn't to me. It's very similar to the question on what a relieving letter is in India. – Fiona - myaccessible.website Aug 15 '14 at 10:57
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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)

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    In an at-will situation in the US, the employee also can terminate the employment relationship at any time for any reason or none. Admittedly, the power balance is strongly in favor of the employer. – O. Jones Aug 15 '14 at 2:37
  • Unless you're under a specific contract, you can quit any time from any job in the US. – JohnP Aug 19 '14 at 15:17
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    @JohnP - Even if you have a contract. You still cannot be forced to work for somebody. If you break the contact, it might mean you make the other party whole, but you cannot be forced to work for somebody. – Donald Aug 19 '14 at 15:30
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    @Ramhound - True, I was trying more to get at the penalty of some contracts, should have been a little more explicit. – JohnP Aug 19 '14 at 16:39
  • The way "at-will" policies are described here in the US seems to imply that employers are the ones being protected at the cost of the employee. However, one should note that it takes time and money to hire another competent employee, which acts as a deterrent for baseless terminations. – Zeejet May 31 '16 at 13:47
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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:

  • Age
  • Pregnancy
  • National Origin
  • Race
  • 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.

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    Your answer is technically wrong. Yes, "At will" does mean you can fire a person at any time without cause. You can also fire them for a good cause (eg, incompetence), a bad cause (eg, green socks), but not for one of the proscribed causes (eg race). – emory Aug 17 '14 at 17:47
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    Emory is completely correct in how he worded that. "Without cause" means firing specifically without a reason - ie, simply firing someone because you no longer want them in that position (or eliminate the position), not because of any specific reason. Discriminatory causes are a separate matter from 'for cause' or 'without cause'. – Joe Aug 18 '14 at 2:25
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    I don't understand. If you can be fired without any reason, then how would you know that you were fired for one of those "not allowed" reasons? The employer will not helpfully hand you a document saying you were fired for being too old. – Masked Man May 25 '16 at 13:21
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    @MaskedMan True. This is the reason so few workplace discrimination and wrongful termination cases ever go to court. It is extremely hard to prove. Most cases get thrown out, unless there is concrete evidence or corroboration. – Keltari May 25 '16 at 13:40
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    @JonStory Yeah, that's what I thought as well. If I am a prejudiced manager, what is stopping me from firing someone for "returning 2 minutes late after a lunch break once" when, in fact, I am doing it because I just found out they were gay? – Masked Man May 25 '16 at 15:36
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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.

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    +1 You are correct. I was talking to my neighbor, who is an attorney, about wrongful termination recently. He said that in our state (Virginia), almost all of the wrongful termination suits get thrown out and never go to trial. He said its due to the fact that if companies fired someone, even if it actually was a wrongful and illegal termination, its almost impossible to prove. The plaintiff would need to provide some extremely solid evidence before the trial. – Keltari Aug 17 '14 at 16:38
  • I maxed out the comment above and had to start a new comment. He also said companies can reside and be incorporated in multiple states and/or countries and the laws become even more muddled then. – Keltari Aug 17 '14 at 16:45
  • @Keltari not sure about the US, but in many countries local labour laws ALWAYS take first place. If I work in the Netherlands for example for a UK company, I work under Dutch labour law, not UK labour law, with all the differences between them. – jwenting Aug 20 '14 at 6:36
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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

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    wrong, there's a contract stating a lot of things, like compensation, duties, etc. etc., it just doesn't states that the contract can be terminated by either party with no prior notice. – jwenting Aug 20 '14 at 6:37

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