What does "at will" employment mean?
Purely at the whim of the employer you can be fired, and you have the similar power to quit your employment at any time. "Just cause" or any "cause" is not required, unless there is some special written or implied promises between the parties. HR policies and practices may also modify an "at will" arrangement. Generally, California is an "at will" employment State, and our Labor Code Section 2922 presumes employment to be "at will". For example, you could be a ten years of service high performing employee and your employment may be legally terminated without cause or advance notice. Non-union, non-government employees are normally "at will" employees.
Keep in mind, there may be other employment protections to be considered both under federal and state laws (see below) that limit "at will" terminations. California Courts have also recognized that all employment relationships are based upon an implied covenant of "good faith and fair dealing" and employers who terminate employees "at will" to avoid contractual promises, (like cheating a salesperson out of an earned commission), may well find the "at will" rule won't protect them from liability for the false promise. Additionally, unemployment insurance entitlements involve other laws and presumptions and the circumstances of employment separation are important to qualify for payment.
This is a very complex area of the law, do not assume you have it figured out. Talk to an attorney.
Are all non-union, non-government jobs "at will" jobs?
No. During the course of an employment relationship many things may occur and/or be communicated that overcome the "at will" presumption in the employment relationship. It's possible that this is true even if an employee handbook or employment letter generally says employment is "at will". Of course, some jobs have specific employment contracts or other agreements or employment duration or process that remove it from "at will" treatment entirely.
I was fired without any warnings or negative performance reviews, is this legal ?
In California, a progressive system and practice of written warnings, disciplines and reviews, meant to be used as a precursor to suspension or termination, may alter "at will" status. Obviously, employees under such a progressive review system rely on the promise that employment actions will not be arbitrary but will follow a certain process and procedure. That said, don't assume that a progressive disciplinary system will prevent an employer from exercising it's "at will" option, surprise firings are quite common.
Can I be fired just because of my race or national origin, even as an "at will" employee?
Employers cannot discriminate in the rights, privileges and benefits of employment due to race, national origin, age, sex, disability, pregnancy (to name a few classes) and employers may not retaliate for opposing unlawful conduct, terminate employees in violation of public policy, or terminate employees who are "whistleblowers" under protective statutes. Obviously, this is an extremely comprehensive area of law involving several different federal and state enactments and statutes, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Suffice to say, an arbitrary termination is often suspect as involving a motive or attitude that could make an otherwise "at will" termination unlawful and in violation of public policy. That said, you can be fired, and your remedy is a complaint to the EEOC or DFEH and/or hiring an attorney. Don't assume you have a bullet-proof vest, it is better to take defense action while employed than risk a termination event.
I've been fired "at will", what can I do about it?
You can educate yourself on websites, like those linked here. Keep in mind, your termination may have been be unlawful under some provision of the California Labor Code or a federal / state statute that hasn't been discussed above.
Act promptly, for example the EEOC generally requires a filing within 300 days of the alleged violation and other rights might sunset after just 6 months. So, gather your facts and move promptly to discuss your options with a qualified attorney.
Is an attorney consult worth it?
Many, if not most, employment attorneys will offer a free consult on the phone or in person. You might be surprised how much information and clarity can be gained by talking to an expert that wrestles with discrimination, labor code, harassment and wrongful termination issues every day of their practice. Make the call.
Our Governor's Office points to the three major exceptions to the "at will" doctine: 1) unlawful discrimination, 2) union participation, and 3) refusing to engage illegal activity HERE
Dore v. Arnold Worldwide, Inc. S124494, 139 P.3d 56 (Cal. 2006) Dore felt he was verbally promised long-term employment, to "play a critical role", but later signed a letter that include a paragraph that expressed the employment relationship was "at will". After being terminated, he sued for (1) breach of contract, (2) breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress, (4) fraud, and (5) negligent misrepresentation. The California Supreme Court ruled that the letter stating "..his employment was at will and terminable at any time as a matter of law defeats any contention that he reasonably understood AWI to have promised him long-term employment.".