Can at-will employees be fired for any reason?

Frank S. Clowney III

Employers in California may have employee handbooks, which state the rules within the company and the expectations for their employees. These may seem like employment contracts, but for most employees in California they do not change the fact that the employee is an at-will employee. This generally means that the employees do not have a contract for a set period of time or are not part of a collective bargaining agreement usually associated with labor unions.

It also means that the employee can quit for basically any reason at any time and employers can fire employees at any time whether there is good cause to fire them or not. There are certain situations when there may be implied employment contracts, but unless there is a signed employment contract stating a specific term of employment either party can terminate the employment with little to no warning. However, even at-will employees are protected against discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

Reasons why at-will employee may have wrongful termination claim

This means that it is illegal for employers to fire employees based on discrimination, which can come in different forms. It could be discrimination based on age, race, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability and other protected classes. Employers can also not retaliate against employees for either reporting a violation of the law or participating in an investigation into illegal activity, which can include participation in investigations into discrimination and harassment of fellow employees.

It may seem like at-will employees are at the mercy of the employers for their continued employment, but they do have some protections. It is illegal for employers to discriminate against their employees. If they do, the employee may have a wrongful termination claim against the employer and may be entitled to compensation including back pay and potentially future pay. It is important that employers are held accountable for their discrimination and experienced attorneys may be able to guide one through the process.