Employment at will is a working arrangement giving employers more flexibility when it comes to making changes to an employee’s wages and other compensation, and making it easier for employers to terminate workers.

An employee working under an at-will employment contract can be terminated by their employer at any time without warning, and without establishing just cause. An employer can also change the terms of an at-will employment contract at any time, including changes to any of the following items:

  • Wages
  • Availability of benefits
  • Number of vacation hours
  • Number of sick days

On the other side, an employee hired under an at-will employment contract can choose to leave their job at any time without providing notice to their employer.

There are a number of things that can mitigate the actions of employers that use at-will employment contracts.

Employee Agreements
If an employer hires someone under the terms of an Employment Agreement, those terms take precedence over the liberties of an at-will employment relationship. The employer must honor the terms and conditions of the employment contract they co-signed with the employee.

Collective Bargaining Agreements
An employee who belongs to a union or professional association that has established a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with an employer is protected by that agreement. For example, CBAs typically have a strict set of conditions regarding when and how a worker can be dismissed.

Employment Laws
At-will employment agreements cannot be used to ignore or overrule state and federal labor laws. For example, an at-will employment worker typically can’t be summarily dismissed from their job on the basis of any of the following personal qualities:

  • Race or color
  • Religion
  • National origin or ancestry
  • Marital status
  • Gender or sexual orientation
  • Age

Pros and Cons of Employment at Will

Supporters of employment at will believe that employers will hire greater numbers of temporary workers if they know they can terminate these workers without notice or just cause. The proponents argue that companies are more likely to eliminate positions and use more automated production methods if they do not have at-will employment contracts at their disposal.

Critics of employment at will say it is unfair and overly harsh for working Americans. They believe there is a direct link between job security and higher levels of consumer confidence, an economic metric that indicates the level of optimism (or pessimism) people have in the nation’s economy and their personal financial standing.

Where Can I Learn More About Employment Laws?

For more information about federal employment laws that have an impact on employment at will employers and employees, visit the Employment Law Guide webpage created by the US Department of Labor.

Posted by Aaron Axline

Aaron Axline is an author, technology journalist, blogger, and knowledge management expert.