If you have recently read on a job application or in an employee handbook that you would be (or are) employed “at will,” you may be wondering what that means. It is rarely defined clearly in these documents, and the expectation is that most people will know what it means.
Essentially, if you are employed at will, the employer can fire you for almost any reason. While there are some reasons which are illegal even in an at will state, in general if they fire you, you have little to no legal recourse.
In most states, including Virginia, every employer is free to decide to adopt an at will policy. In fact, unless they specifically state otherwise, the law will presume that you are employed at will.
If you are wondering if you are an at will employee, or what your rights as an at will employee are, this article will help you. It will also give you advice if you are wondering whether or not you should sign an at will employment agreement.
Are You an At Will Employee?
Unless you can prove otherwise, the law presumes that you are employed at will. In order to prove that you are not, you will need documentation that shows that your employee agreed to only fire you for cause.
The first thing you should do is look through your employment documents. Most employers are very careful to state explicitly and repeatedly in employment agreements, contracts, and employee handbooks that their employees work at will. If you have at any point signed a document that states that you are an at will employee, then you are without doubt an at will employee.
If you have not signed any sort of employment agreement stating that you are an at will employee, then you need to look through your other documents. Employee handbooks, manuals, or office policies may state that all employees are considered at will employees.
These documents may not use the phrase “at will,” but if they state that employees can be fired without cause or at any time, then you are considered to be employed at will. Some employers, though, provide a list of reasons for which employees can be fired, and will only fire you for one of these listed reasons.
If your employee has such a policy, you are entitled to rely on it. If they have violated their own workplace policy, then you have legal recourse. You are not employed at will if the employer has defined the specific causes for which an employee can be fired.
Similarly, you are not employed at will if you have a contract with your employer. Such contracts will specify the conditions under which the contract can be terminated, and provide a lot of job security.
Your employer may have said things to you which implied that you would only be fired for cause. Statements like “We only fire employees who fail to meet our performance standards,” or “As long as you work hard, you’ll always have a home here” are indications that you are not employed at will. This is especially true if such comments have been made repeatedly, or during the interview process.
Even if the employer does not have an official policy of only firing for cause, if those statements have been made you can reasonably assume that you are not employed at will. Conversely, if you have been told during the hiring process or afterward that you are an at will employee, you must assume that your employer can legally fire you for any cause.
At Will Employee Rights
Even if you are employed at will, there are still some legal protections in place. There are federal protections which apply nation-wide, and state protections which, of course, will vary from state to state.
For the most part, these protections revolve around your basic legal rights as a U.S. citizen. Your employer cannot fire you for discriminatory reasons like your race, religion, or gender. You also cannot be fired for complaining about workplace discrimination, harassment, health and safety violations, or illegal activity in the workplace.
Finally, you cannot be fired for taking medical leave, family leave, or for taking time off to serve on a jury or in the military. These are the federal protections; your state may have additional employment protections in place.
At Will Agreements
Many employers will ask you to sign an agreement stating that you will work at will. While you do not have to sign such an agreement, know that in most states an employer can fire you or refuse to hire you if you will not sign.
Most employers, even those with at will agreements, prefer not to fire people. They would rather work through any problems that may arise, so there is rarely a problem with signing these agreements. The only time you should consider not signing is if the employer previously had assured a certain level of job security.
Speak to an Experienced Employment Law Attorney
If you have more questions about your rights as an at will employee, contact The Brown Firm today.