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At-Will Employment

San Francisco, CA Employment Law Attorneys

What does at-will employment mean under California law, and how might these laws affect you when you’ve been fired?

Like most states, California law permits what is known as “employment at will,” a system in which an employee may be fired from a job without any explanation from the employer.  In an at-will employment situation, the employee also has the right to quit at any time, without giving a reason or notice of his or her departure.  And the employer of an at-will employee can change the terms of the employment — increasing hours, lowering pay or changing the employee’s duties — with only limited notice.  The employee can accept the new terms by continuing to work under the new conditions, or can reject them by quitting.

The concept is simple enough, but what if you believe your employer treated you unfairly by letting you go?  Do you have any recourse?

Limitations on an Employer’s Right to Fire

You should know that there are exceptions to an employers right to terminate your employment “at will.”  Some of these exceptions include:

  • When you and your employer have entered into an employment contract specifying a term of employment, a method for terminating your employment, or terms and conditions for such termination, such as requirements for notice or for severance pay
  • When your employer fires you for unlawful discriminatory purposes, based on your race, sex, age, disability, religion, national origin or, in certain cases, your sexual orientation
  • When you are let go for a reason that is against public policy, such as when your employer is engaged in illegal activity and fires you in order to silence you.
  • When the employer forms an implied contract with you, altering the at-will employment agreement, perhaps by saying something like, “If you take on this new project and make it successful you can count on having a job with this company until you retire.”

How Do You Know Whether Your Employment Was “At Will”?

An at-will employment arrangement can be implied or express.  An implied at-will employment arrangement is usually formed when you take a job and nothing is written or said about the permanency of your employment.  An employer may also expressly state that the employment is at will, in one or more of the following ways:

  • Verbally
  • In a written contract
  • On an employment application
  • Through information provided in an employee handbook.