What Does At-Will Employment Mean?

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When you take a job, you may find that your employment contract or employee handbook specifies that you are employed “at will.” At-will employment benefits employers in several ways, most notably in that they can dismiss an employee for any reason whatsoever, as long as the reason is not prohibited by law. In many countries outside the United States, at-will employment is less widespread, but most places in the United States presume at-will employment.

In addition to providing an employer with legal cover for dismissing an employee without cause, at-will employment allows the employer to alter the terms of a worker’s employment in ways they might not be able to under a different type of work agreement. At-will employees can have their wages, benefits, or vacation policy changed without cause, notice, or consequences. On the other hand, at-will employees are also free to leave their jobs at any time without consequences, which may not be true in cases where an employee signs a non-at-will contract detailing the terms of employment.

While at-will employment places a lot of power into the hands of employers, many employers voluntarily give up some of that power in order to attract employees and create a better work environment. At-will employment can be modified by explicit contracts, such as those often signed by high-level employees, as well as by implied contracts, which may affect large groups of employees. Implied contracts are recognized in most U.S. states and can include employee handbooks and policies, or even statements made verbally by management. If, for instance, an employee handbook specifies a particular process that will be followed before an employee is terminated, the employer must stay true to its word and follow that process before terminating an employee.

The language used in at-will employment agreements can seem severe, but most employers recognize that firing employees at random isn’t in their best interests. A good employer will not fire an employee without cause or warning, even if they aren’t legally required to.

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