We often get asked by employers about the meaning of “at-will employment.” The rule states that an employee can be hired for an indefinite period and can be terminated at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all, with or without notice. The employee can also quit at any time, with or without reason or notice. This term is often confused with the term “right to work” which actually means that employers cannot require that employees be part of a union in order to be hired for a position.
Employment in most states (except Montana) is generally presumed to be “at-will.” It is important to remember that you can change an at-will arrangement, sometimes even by accident, by implying or stating that an employee will be with the company for a specific period of time. Special care should be given to the creation of employment documents to insure that there is no implied contract. Employee offer letters, policy guides, applications and other documents should also include an at-will statement such as:
I have entered into my employment relationship with the understanding that I am an at-will employee and acknowledge that there is no specific length of employment. Accordingly, either I or my employer, or those designated by my employer, can terminate the employment relationship at-will, with or without cause, at any time, so long as there is no violation of applicable federal or state law.
There are a few exceptions to this general at-will rule. An employer cannot fire an employee if doing so would be unlawful discrimination. An employer cannot fire an employee because of race, color, religion, sex, age (over 40), national origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, childbirth or pregnancy-related conditions.
An employer also cannot fire an employee for asking for a reasonable accommodation, for complaining about unlawful discrimination, or for participating in an employment discrimination investigation.
May states (including Utah) also have laws prohibiting an employer from firing an employee if the termination would violate clear and substantial public policy. For example, you cannot fire an employee for refusing to do something illegal such as refusing to file false tax returns or other federal documents, refusing to mislead a safety inspector, refusing to notarize a signature when the person who signed is not present or refusing to present a consumer with misleading information. You can also not fire an employee for serving on a jury, responding to a subpoena or serving in the military.
If you choose to forgo an at-will employment arrangement in favor of an employment contract there are a few things to consider. An employment contract should always be drafted by an attorney who specializes in employment law with special care taken to situations that may arise causing the need to end the employment relationship, on both sides.
Still have questions? Contact our HR experts at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-748-5102.
Much of this information is adapted from the Utah Labor Commission website: https://laborcommission.utah.gov/FAQ/discrimination_in_employment.html