California is an at-will employment state – but what does that really mean? If your work is good but your employer fires you simply because they don’t like you, is that actually legal?
Maybe. At-will employment offers both employees and employers some pretty broad latitude.
What “at-will” employment means
“At-will” employment means that either the employer or employee can end a working relationship any time they choose. They can do this with advance notice or without, and neither you nor your employer actually has to have a reason for your actions.
In other words, you can simply decide you don’t like working somewhere and quit. By the same token, your employer can simply decide they don’t like you working for them and fire you.
When there are exceptions to at-will employment
That doesn’t mean that every termination is lawful, however. Your employer cannot fire you when doing so is:
- A violation of a specific contract that exists between you and your employer which sets out steps that have to be followed before you can be let go
- A violation of the implicit (unwritten and understood) contract for employment that exists between you and your employer (such as one created by a company handbook that lists off disciplinary steps that can lead to termination)
- A violation of public policy, in that you are being let go because of a discriminatory reason related to your inclusion in a protected class (such as being over 40, the member of a certain race, your gender and so on)
- A violation of public policy, in that you are being retaliated against for asserting your legal rights, such as filing a discrimination complaint or a workers’ comp claim
If you believe that your firing was wrongful or unjustified, you do have the right to fight it. Even though California is an at-will state, your employer might have violated one of the exceptions to the at-will employment relationship. Learning more about how at-will employment and wrongful termination exceptions work can help you decide your next steps.