The at-will Doctrine is a longstanding principle in the American labor market which, in basic form, states that an employer can decide “at-will” to terminate an employee for any reason and at any time, without the need for providing just cause for the termination.
There is currently no statute written by elected lawmakers establishing the at-will doctrine as legal fact; rather it is based in the common law, which is the body of law based on the judicial decisions of legal precedent established by the courts. The at-will doctrine came into precedence in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the economic policy termed by the French phrase as “laissez-faire” or “hands-off,” meaning minimal interference by the government in the economic affairs of the state and individuals, became popular in rapidly industrializing American business and political models. Every state in the United States, with the exception of Montana, is an at-will state, and the majority of employees (with some exceptions such as those employed by contract or government employees) are at-will employees.
While this doctrine is typically cited as a net negative for the employee side of the labor market, it does go both ways-employees, in turn are also given the right to terminate their own employment “at-will,” at any time, without giving a reason, and without fear of legal retaliation by an employer. Additionally, because employers are aware that you can leave at any time, there is theoretically an inherent incentive for them to treat you well and provide opportunities for growth. Compare an at-will employee who can quit at any time to an employee contracted to work for two years-knowing that the contract employee will only stay to work for two years and then leave, there is little incentive for the employer to offer opportunities to advance within the workplace. Furthermore, as not all employees are guaranteed to stay at their place of work permanently, employees can negotiate preferable terms of employment, such as higher pay and benefits, especially during times when the market favors employees (as it does currently).
On the other hand, employees arguably have more to lose under the at-will doctrine than employers do, as their employment can be terminated at any time while an employer can simply hire a new employee. As many Americans are unfortunately aware, it can be far more difficult to get a new job than it is to hire a new employee, especially during an economic recession or difficult time. Losing one’s job means losing one’s ability to provide for themselves and their loved ones, and the idea that one’s job is never completely secure is a frightening and stressful prospect.
It is important you know your rights as an employee, especially in relation to your job security. When you start a new job, you should be given some sort of written information as a new hire detailing the policies and procedures relating to the terms and conditions of your employment, typically in the form of an employee handbook, contract, or manual. Make sure to read the information provided to you very carefully and ask questions if needed. You should know based on this information whether you are considering an at-will employee or otherwise. A good employer should not be opposed to their employees’ asking questions in good faith about their employee rights-and if an employer is strongly opposed to answering any kind of concern raised about their employment, it could be an indication that they are not a trustworthy employer with their employee’s rights in mind.
Here is a quick tip to ensuring that you are as prepared as you can be for any changes in your employment-always assume you are an at-will employee unless you know with absolute certainty that you are not (such as if you are an employee contracted to work for a company for two years based on written contract). For instance, we could examine the facts of the 1983 case decided by the District Court of Appeal of Florida in the Second District, Muller v. Stromberg Carlson Corp., 427 So. 2d 266 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1983). The employee, Muller argued that his previous employer, Stromberg Carlson Corporation had breached employment contract by, among other items, terminating his employment without cause in 1981. Muller alleged that he was told by Stromberg that he would become a “permanent” employee after a six-month probationary period and would remain an employee as long as his performance reviews were satisfactory, which Muller’s apparently were. However, the Court ruled against Muller in their opinion, stating that “We see no justification to depart from long established principles that an employment contract requires definiteness and certainty in its terms.” Muller’s employment arrangement included no specific terms relating to tenure or job security; thus as he was not employed for a definite, certain term, he was considered an at-will employee and thus could not argue that he was entitled to legal or financial compensation based on breach of contract by the employer. Unless you are completely sure based on written agreement that you are not an at-will employee, know that you are most likely an at-will employee and can thus be terminated at any time without cause.
Your status as an at-will employee does not mean that you are completely unable to explore the chance for legal remedies if you feel you have been wrongfully terminated. There are numerous exceptions to the at-will doctrine for which you may be able to seek legal resolution for wrongful termination. These may include discrimination by an employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, violation of public interest (such as one being fired for refusing to perform an illegal act), termination after taking leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, for active military duty or for jury duty, and termination in retaliation against you (such as after reporting sexual harassment in the workplace). If you feel that you have been wrongfully terminated and are seeking possible legal recourse, we would be happy to consult with you to discuss your options. Please contact our office via phone at 407-512-4394 to schedule a consultation with an attorney.