Need to start saving with a new ATS? Learn how to calculate the return on investment of your ATS Calculate ROI now

What is at-will employment? Examples and HR actions

At-will employment stands as a fundamental principle shaping the dynamics between employers and employees. This concept, while offering flexibility, also breeds a plethora of misconceptions and legal complexities. 

Alexandros Pantelakis
Alexandros Pantelakis

HR content specialist at Workable, delivering in-depth, data-driven articles to offer insights into industry and tech trends.

Understanding at-will employment is crucial not only for employers navigating the legal landscape of hiring and firing but also for employees seeking to understand their rights and protections under this doctrine. 

This article delves into the intricacies of at-will employment, shedding light on its definition, historical context, legal boundaries, and practical implications in the modern workplace.

Defining at-will employment

At its core, at-will employment refers to an employment agreement that can be terminated at any time, by either the employer or the employee, for any reason that is not illegal, or for no reason at all. 

This definition encapsulates the essence of the doctrine, emphasizing the unilateral flexibility it provides in the employment relationship. 

However, this flexibility is not absolute and is bounded by a framework of legal exceptions designed to prevent wrongful terminations.

Historically, the concept of at-will employment in the United States was not the result of formal legislation but rather evolved through legal precedents over the years. 

It is widely attributed to Horace Gray Wood’s 1871 treatise, which articulated the principle that employment could be terminated by either party without notice. 

This doctrine starkly contrasts with employment practices in other countries, where employment contracts and indefinite employment terms are more common, reflecting a different approach to labor relations and worker protections.

Misconceptions and legal boundaries

Despite its widespread application, at-will employment is often misunderstood, with many assuming it grants employers carte blanche to dismiss employees arbitrarily. 

This misconception overlooks the legal boundaries that have been established to protect workers from unjust termination. 

Key exceptions to the at-will doctrine include:

Public policy exception: This exception prevents employers from terminating employees for reasons that violate state or national public policy, such as firing an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim or for refusing to engage in illegal activities at the request of the employer.

Implied contract exception: An employee may argue that an implied contract was formed, suggesting a guarantee of continued employment, based on the employer’s statements, policies, or practices.

Good faith and fair dealing: Some states recognize this exception, which bars employers from terminating employees in bad faith or for malicious reasons, aiming to ensure that termination decisions are not made out of spite or for reasons unrelated to job performance or business needs.

These exceptions illustrate the legal complexities surrounding at-will employment, highlighting the need for both employers and employees to navigate this doctrine with a clear understanding of its limitations and protections.

Advantages and disadvantages

The at-will employment doctrine offers distinct advantages and disadvantages, influencing the operational strategies of businesses and the career decisions of employees. 

For employers, the primary benefit lies in the flexibility to adapt their workforce to changing business needs without the constraints of fixed-term contracts. 

This flexibility allows for the swift reallocation of resources, adjustments to staffing levels, and modifications to employment terms in response to market dynamics. 

Additionally, at-will employment supports a meritocratic work environment, where promotions and rewards can be based on performance rather than seniority, fostering a culture of achievement and motivation.

Conversely, the disadvantages of at-will employment primarily affect employees, who may face job insecurity and limited protections against arbitrary dismissal. 

The lack of guaranteed employment tenure can lead to a precarious work situation, where employees are vulnerable to sudden termination without cause. 

This vulnerability underscores the importance of understanding the legal exceptions and protections available under the at-will doctrine, as well as the potential benefits of union representation or negotiated employment contracts that offer greater job security.

Rights under at-will employment

Despite the seemingly broad powers that at-will employment grants employers, it’s crucial to recognize the substantial rights and protections that employees retain under this doctrine. 

These safeguards are designed to prevent discrimination, retaliation, and other forms of wrongful termination, ensuring a fair and equitable workplace.

Anti-discrimination laws

Federal and state laws prohibit employers from terminating employees based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. 

These protections ensure that all employees have equal opportunities and are judged solely on their merits and job performance.

Retaliation protections

Employees are protected from being fired as a form of retaliation for engaging in legally protected activities, such as filing a complaint about workplace discrimination or harassment, participating in an investigation, or whistleblowing on illegal activities within the organization.

Unions and collective bargaining

In at-will states, unions still play a significant role in negotiating terms of employment that can offer additional job security and protections for workers. 

These agreements may include clauses that limit the reasons for which an employee can be terminated, typically requiring “just cause” for termination.

Understanding these rights is essential for employees to navigate their employment securely and for employers to manage their workforce responsibly. 

At-will employment in practice

In practice, at-will employment encompasses a wide range of scenarios, from straightforward terminations due to business downturns to complex legal disputes over alleged wrongful terminations. 

Here are examples illustrating the application of at-will employment:

Performance-based termination

An employee consistently underperforms despite receiving feedback and resources for improvement. The employer decides to terminate the employment based on documented performance issues, aligning with at-will employment principles while ensuring the decision is justified and documented.

Disputed termination 

An employee claims their termination was due to discriminatory reasons, challenging the at-will termination. This scenario underscores the importance of employers maintaining clear, documented reasons for termination that comply with legal protections against discrimination and retaliation.

Communicating at-will employment terms effectively involves clear language in job postings, offer letters, and employee handbooks, ensuring employees understand the nature of their employment relationship from the start.

Tips for HR professionals on managing at-will employment

Navigating at-will employment requires HR professionals to balance legal compliance, ethical considerations, and organizational objectives. Here’s a concise guide to managing at-will employment effectively:

Stay informed: Keep abreast of changes in employment laws and educate management on the legalities surrounding at-will employment to prevent wrongful termination claims.

Clear communication: Ensure at-will employment policies are transparently communicated through employee handbooks and offer letters, and that employees understand these policies.

Document rigorously: Maintain detailed records of all employment decisions, including performance evaluations and disciplinary actions, to support these decisions if challenged.

Promote fairness: Foster a workplace culture that values fairness and equality, implementing regular training on diversity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination policies.

Handle terminations with care: Approach terminations sensitively, providing clear reasons for the decision and avoiding discriminatory or retaliatory language.

Ethical decision-making: Prioritize ethical considerations in employment decisions, exploring alternatives to termination such as performance improvement plans or reassignment.

Continuous learning: Engage in ongoing professional development to stay current on best practices in employment law and HR management.

Build trust: Cultivate an organizational culture of open communication, where employees feel comfortable discussing concerns and career goals.

By fostering a workplace culture that values fair treatment, transparency, and respect for legal protections, companies can leverage the benefits of at-will employment while minimizing its drawbacks.

Frequently asked questions

Related Definitions

Let's grow together

Explore our full platform with a 15-day free trial.
Post jobs, get candidates and onboard employees all in one place.

Start a free trial