Employment at Will States
Employment at will is a legal concept referred to as the Doctrine of Employment at Will. It essentially means that, in the absence of employment contracts (such as collective bargaining agreements) that indicate otherwise, employers generally may fire employees for any reasons, no reasons and even unfair reasons, as long as they are not illegal reasons.
Subsequently, it's no surprise that, after getting fired from their jobs, some employees immediately want to know if the states in which they work are among the so-called "employment at will states" (also referred to as "at will employment states" or "hired at will states").
That's especially true when employees get fired for no apparent reasons or seemingly unfair reasons.
Grammatically speaking, the term at will should be hyphenated, as in employment at-will states or at-will employment states. But, because not everybody knows that, we've omitted the hyphen to make it easier to find this article in a Web search.
Which are Employment at Will States?
Virtually all states are employment at will states, meaning that all states uphold the Doctrine to some degree. To what degree states uphold the Doctrine regarding employers' rights to discharge employees varies by state.
Montana is unique in the degree at this writing, in that it upholds employment at will only when new-hires are working during a probationary period (defaults to six months from hire date under Montana law). Outside of that, employers in Montana must have good cause to discharge employees.
For the rest of the states, the degree at which they uphold the Doctrine and what constitutes good cause under it, depends on the exceptions they recognize.
Which Employment at Will States Recognize Exceptions?
All employment at will states recognize certain statutory exceptions to the Doctrine, while many also recognize one or more common-law exceptions. Both types of exceptions render the Doctrine inapplicable when discharging employees.
In other words, if employers ignore or violate state-recognized exceptions when discharging employees, then the courts will likely, in effect, rule that the employers did not have good cause under the Doctrine, meaning that the Doctrine didn't apply. Such discharges are collectively referred to as wrongful discharge, more commonly called wrongful termination.
The more common-law exceptions that a state recognizes, the less it upholds the Doctrine regarding employers' rights to discharge employees without cause. Common-law exceptions are in addition to statutory exceptions, such as those imposed by statutes prohibiting employment discrimination. Common-law exceptions grant employees more ways to justifiably claim wrongful termination, by reducing the ways that employers may rightfully discharge employees under the Doctrine.
Listed in the table to your right, are the number of employment at will states (including Washington, DC) that recognized the common-law exceptions indicated as of April 2008. At the time, Florida, Georgia and Rhode Island were the only states that didn't recognize any of the exceptions listed.*
To discover more exceptions that might render the Doctrine inapplicable in the employment at will state in which you work, refer to At Will Employment and Wrongful Termination. To get straight to the point for your particular situation, consult an attorney.