HR Management & Compliance

What Does At-Will Employment Really Mean?

At-will employment is something most U.S.-based employers are familiar with. But what does this term really mean? Can an employer actually terminate an employee without any reason at all? What are the exceptions?

Defining At-Will Employment

First, let’s start with the definition of “at-will employment.” It does in fact mean that an employer has the right to terminate an employee at any time and for any (or no) reason. It also means that the employee has the right to terminate his or her own employment at any time and for any (or no) reason. There are no predefined legal requirements in terms of notice periods either. This means the termination can be done without any prior notice.

If an employer/employee who is in an at-will employment situation decides to terminate the employment relationship, the other party has no recourse. In the United States, in almost every state (Montana is the exception), an employee is considered to be an at-will employee unless there is proof otherwise, such as an employment contract.

Exceptions to the At-Will Employment Doctrine

Employers need to understand that there are caveats to the above definition. This is because other laws may be broken if a termination is made for an otherwise illegal reason, such as discrimination. Here are some of the exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine:

    • An employee cannot be fired for a discriminatory reason. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, for example, protects employees from discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, color, or sex. For another example, the Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate against someone because of a disability.

    • An employee cannot be fired out of retaliation for performing a legally protected action. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Other retaliation-protected actions include:
      • Filing a discrimination or harassment suit
      • Being a whistleblower regarding illegal or unsafe practices
      • Refusing to perform illegal activities
      • Participating in a workplace investigation
      • Requesting reasonable accommodation for a disability
      • Taking legally protected leave from work, such as FMLA  leave
      • Discussing (or complaining about) the working environment or wage and overtime practices


    • An employee with a contract that outlines the terms of employment cannot be fired outside of those terms. In other words, contracts supersede at-will employment assumptions. Some states also provide protections for implied (unwritten) contracts. Check your local laws.

    • An employer who provides some protections in employment policies, such as firing only for just cause, must abide by those protections. In this case, the employer has opted to forgo the at-will option by providing other protections.

As we’ve shown here, terminating an at-will employee is not always as straightforward as it may seem. Employers should also remember that some states have more stringent requirements. Be sure to check state and local laws before making any termination decision.


About Bridget Miller:

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.

5 thoughts on “What Does At-Will Employment Really Mean?”

  1. More of a question any response appreciated. If while an employee is injured and receiving work comp can I draw up a document requiring her signature( which she refused to sign) of restrictions I want her to follow and if she can not follow all my restrictions and 2 from the doctor she will give me a four week resignation. Without a restriction on days worked from doctor can I take it upon myself to cut her days from 5 to 3. After her last doctor visit she was given a six hr a day work restriction which I feel she asked the doctor to give her, I felt that because of this I would require her to be 100% now! Not in 3,4,5 months and I told her I just didn’t think I was going to be able to provide this accommodation regardless (as she pointed out to me)of the fact that prior to her injury 90% of her days were 6hrs or less. I told her that because she was an at will employee I did not have to nor was I going to provide her the 6hr accommodation, I also did not think it would be fair to the other employees not even for 2 weeks until her next doctors appointment. Am I in the right in all my actions including my terminating her employment.

    1. I’m curious as to what the outcome was of the employee who was on Workers Comp and had a 6-hour work day restriction per her physician’s orders.

  2. for worked for a company for 15 years I was terminated for false statements that another store manager proved to the district manager and because those reason I was terminated .

  3. Here’s my situation. I have an at will contract out of Virginia but am from California and working in Saudi Arabia, does the at will contract apply if you are employed by the company but not working in the state or even the country?

  4. I am a union member of the NYCDCC Carpenter Union. I pay dues , working dues and have to perform picket duty after 99 hrs worked. There also retired police officers that work in my office doing the same job as me. they are not required to pay any dues or have any union responsibility. They also are paid different and do not receive any pension credits. I do. The supervisor fired me and told me I was an at will employee. Is this possible?

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