Employment at-will means that the employment relationship can be ended by either party (employer or employee), at any time, for any legal reason or for no reason at all, and with or without notice. It means that there is no defined length of employment or employment contract. Most private-sector employers include an at-will statement in their employment policies, and we highly recommend that our clients do so. If you use the Helpside Employee Handbook, it includes this statement.

Montana is the only state that does not allow an at-will employment relationship. A Montana-based employer is required to have just cause for terminating the employment relationship after an employee has completed his or her probationary period.

The term at-will employment is often confused with the term “right to work.” The term right to work actually refers to state laws that prohibit employees in unionized workplaces from negotiating contracts that require all members who benefit from the union contract to pay union dues and has noting to do with terminating employees.

Stating that an employee’s employment is at-will does not prohibit employers from adopting a practice of informing employees of the reasons for termination. If done appropriately, providing reasons may ease the termination process and reduce the likelihood of wrongful termination claims filed by former employees. We recommend that employers provide terminated employees with a clear reason for the termination. If a progressive discipline practice is followed and well documented, the reason for termination should come to no surprise to the employee and should be relatively simple to explain.

Employment at-will does not change the fact that federal employment laws prohibit employers from terminating employees on the basis of certain protected classifications and activities. In general, an employer cannot terminate an employee due to race, gender, age, disability, pregnancy, national origin and religion. An employer is also prohibited from terminating an employee in retaliation for the employee exercising his or her federally protected rights.

Stating that employment is at-will also does not mean that an employer cannot be accused of wrongful termination. However, an employer can protect itself from wrongful termination claims and increase the likelihood of prevailing in potential court proceedings by following a progressive discipline procedure and maintaining relevant documents and records which support all actions related to employment decisions.

If you have questions about at-will employment, employee policy guides, progressive discipline or employee terminations, contact one of our HR experts at humanresources@helpside.com or 800-748-5102.