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What does at-will employment mean?

On Behalf of | Jul 2, 2021 | Wrongful Termination |

In California, it is presumed that most people who are hired are “at will” employees. This means that the employer may terminate the employee at any time, without cause or prior notice. It also means that an employee can leave the company without giving notice or offering a reason.

Definition of cause

It is important to explain the definition of “cause” under California law. According to the law, the reason for termination must be fair and honest, regulated by good faith on the part of the employer. The purpose of the statute is to eliminate the burden on the employer should it be required to prove in court that it acted fairly and in good faith every time it terminated an employee.

Exemptions to at-will employment

There are exceptions to at-will employment. The public policy exception forbids an employer from terminating you if it would violate an existing federal or state law. Firing someone for filing a workers’ compensation claim would fall under this exception. If you have an employment contract, your employer may not terminate you without cause. This also exists if you have an implied contract, such as language in an employee handbook or misleading language in an offer letter. Finally, an employer must act in good faith and deal fairly with employees. If any of these exemptions exist and you are terminated, you may have grounds for a wrongful termination claim.

Progressive discipline

Although it may seem that an employer can terminate you in California for even a minor infraction, many courts have upheld what is called “progressive discipline” policies. An employer is required to issue prior warnings and less severe sanctions before terminating an employee. In addition, if the employer terminates you due to discrimination, in retaliation or in violation of statues, such as whistleblower protections, you may have a wrongful termination case.

If you have been terminated and you believe the action was wrongful, you might want to speak to an attorney. Although California is an at-will state, you may still be able to receive unemployment or you may have grounds to file a wrongful termination claim against the employer.