When an employment relationship is “at-will,” it means that the employee and the employer can end the relationship at any time, with or without notice, and that the employer can sever the relationship for any lawful reason. Employment relationships are not “at-will” when they are governed by an employment contract with terms and conditions placed on terminations, such as a collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the employer and a labor union. In those employment relationships, the employer generally must have “just cause” to terminate an employee.
So, is an at-will employee still able to claim wrongful termination? Yes. Here’s why.
Terminated at-will employees may claim you violated their rights
While the concept of at-will employment is fairly straightforward, individuals who were at-will employees frequently file lawsuits against their former employers alleging they were terminated for an unlawful reason, such as discrimination. An employer cannot take an adverse employment action (i.e., termination, write-up, layoff, demotion, etc.) against an employee because that person is a member of a protected group under the law. Protected categories under California law include: race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, reproductive health decisionmaking, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or veteran or military status.
Similarly, employers are prohibited from taking an adverse action against an employee because they engaged in a “protected activity,” e.g., filed a complaint with a government agency related to their employment, made an internal complaint regarding their working conditions, or requested a reasonable accommodation from the employer. This kind of conduct can be considered unlawful retaliation.
Sometimes, this causes confusion. For example, an employer might decide to fire an employee because they could not get along with customers or were not as productive as the other workers. The employee may claim they were fired because they were pregnant or had a disability. In this situation, the employee might end up filing a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination, even if they had been informed of the employer’s legitimate reasons for termination at the time of separation.
As a business owner, claims of wrongful termination can be concerning – especially when you know your company did nothing wrong. Having strong employment policies and procedures in place and ensuring they are enforced consistently can help protect your company from frivolous claims of unlawful wrongful termination. Knowing your legal options in these situations is wise to help protect and defend your business.