This page provides answers to the following questions:
Yes. In fact, most employees in the United States are at-will employees, even though most employees are unaware of this situation. In most states, the law presumes that private sector employees are employed “at-will.” The employment-at-will doctrine provides that both the employer and the employee can end the employment relationship at any time without notice or reason. This means the employer has the right to terminate your employment at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all or for a bad reason, so long as the reason is not illegal – even if you performance has been outstanding. The other side of the “at-will” coin is that you, as an employee, can quit your job for any reason at any time. You cannot be forced to work for an employer. You don’t have to give your employer a reason for quitting.
Yes, there are several exceptions. You are not an at-will employee if you have a contract, such as a union contract. When an employee is covered under an employment contract, you can only be terminated as the contract permits. If the employer does not follow the contract in terminating or disciplining you, you may have a breach of contract claim.
A handbook or personnel code may also be a contract. However, if there is a disclaimer in your handbook, it may not be a contract. State laws vary in evaluating whether a handbook is a contract. You should consult your own state’s law to determine if your state considers handbooks to be contracts between employers and employees.
All federal employees are protected from any termination that violates the United States Constitution or the constitution of the state in which they work. For example, an employee’s rights to freedom of speech, association, religion, or freedom from unlawful search and seizure may be at issue when an employee is terminated. For more information about Federal Employees rights, check out Federal Employees Legal Survival Guide under the publications link on this page.
An employee may not be terminated for an illegal reason such as their race, sex, age, religion, nationality, or disability. If you believe you were terminated because of such a reason, please see our section on discrimination for additional information on the different types of illegal discrimination and on filing a discrimination claim.