The concept of “at-will employment” basically means that an employer can fire its employee for any reason or no reason at all without warning. On the other hand, an employee can quit whenever he or she wants to.
The doctrine of “at-will employment” or emerged at the end of the 19th century, when government intervened very little in issues related to business and employment relations. It was the time when the free market dictated all employment policies.
Later the labor movement and collective bargaining eliminated employment at-will for unionized workers. Employers were supposed to demonstrate a “just cause” before applying disciplinary measures or firing an employee of the organized company.
Since then the sphere of practical application of the concept of at-will employment is gradually shrinking. In the second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century many federal and state laws were adopted aimed at limiting and conditioning the application of at-will employment.
For instance, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees based on sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 forbids discrimination against employees age 40 years or older. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibits discrimination against women based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
Although at-will employment is still a dominant rule, it has many different exceptions on the federal, as well as state level. Employers still can fire their employers for any cause or no cause, but they cannot fire employees for a wrong cause. Besides stated above employers’ discriminatory motives, a wrong cause also includes situations when firing of an employee would be against the federal or state “public policy.” For instance, an employee cannot be fired for refusing to violate the law, or for whistleblowing about the employer’s violations of mandatory rules and regulations.
Another case of wrongful termination would be if you were employed based on employment contract and then fired in violation of terms and conditions of that contract.
In the private sector you are presumed to be employed at-will, unless you signed an employment contract, or you are a union member and you are covered under the union contract. However, as we stated above, being employed at-will does not mean that you have no rights, or that you cannot defend your rights. If you think that your employment rights were violated, you should consult your employment attorney without delay.