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What is “At-Will Employment,” and why it doesn’t mean you can be fired for any reason

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It's difficult to find a job when you move to the US, and then when you finally do get employed, you're given a huge contract which you're required to sign in order to start. While this is all pretty normal and to be expected, something that might catch your eye is an “at-will” clause in your contract. What exactly does it mean though?

The concept of “at-will employment” is a critical aspect of the US employment landscape that international workers should understand when entering the job market. While at-will employment might seem to suggest that an employer can terminate your employment for any reason, there are limitations to this rule.

What is At-Will Employment?

At-will employment is a legal doctrine in the United States that, at its core, allows both the employer and employee to terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all, as long as it does not violate any laws. This might seem obvious to some, but in many countries around the world, you can't fire someone without cause.

This means that, in most cases, an employer can decide to end your employment without providing a specific cause or advanced notice. Conversely, employees can also choose to leave their job without providing a reason or notice.

However, there are exceptions to the at-will doctrine that protect employees from unjust termination.

Limitations to At-Will Employment: Exceptions and Employee Protections

While at-will employment allows for a great deal of flexibility, it does not grant employers the right to terminate an employee for any reason that violates federal, state, or local laws. You will soon learn that the US likes to divide laws and rules by federal, state, and local rulings, and you will need to pay attention to where exactly your contract is administered and by whom.

Some of the most common exceptions to at-will employment include:

  1. Discrimination: Employers cannot fire employees based on their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information under federal anti-discrimination laws.
  2. Retaliation: Employers are not allowed to terminate an employee in retaliation for engaging in legally protected activities, such as filing a complaint about workplace discrimination, reporting safety violations, or participating in a labor union.
  3. Violation of Public Policy: Employers cannot fire employees for reasons that would violate public policy, such as refusing to commit an illegal act or exercising their right to vote.
  4. Contractual Agreements: Employment contracts, whether written or implied, can modify the at-will employment relationship and may require the employer to provide a valid reason for termination or follow specific procedures.

What Can You Do If You Lose Your Job in an At-Will Role?

If you believe that your termination from an at-will role violated any of the exceptions or laws mentioned above, you can take the following steps to protect your rights:

  1. Don't sign anything yet: Your employer will likely give you time to sign something that has the details of you severing your legal relationship. Don't sign it yet. See number 2 first.
  2. Consult an Employment Attorney: This is always my go-to advice because it's always the best advice. Seek individual legal advice from an experienced employment attorney to evaluate the circumstances surrounding your termination and determine if you have a valid claim against your employer. Don't read more blogs or ask on social media because everyone's situation is unique, and your individuality and specific location will play a part in this.
  3. Gather Evidence: Collect relevant documents, emails, and any other evidence that supports your claim of wrongful termination. Don't go undercover, but keep everything detailed and in writing, and not on your company laptop (as they are likely not your property and can be erased at any time). Your best plan is to use your Gmail account (or similar) and email yourself everything as it happens. This will keep a running record of evidence for later.
  4. File a Complaint: If your termination involved discrimination or retaliation, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's labor agency. If you followed number 1, your lawyer can help draft and file this.
  5. Consider Negotiation or Litigation: Depending on the strength of your claim, you might be able to negotiate a severance package or pursue legal action against your former employer. In many cases, your best approach will be to work out an off-ramp so you have the time and money to find yourself another (and a better) job.

Understanding the concept of at-will employment and its limitations is crucial for international employees working in the United States because you're moving your whole life abroad to be working. If you are let go there's more than just the panic of finding a new job, there's also the legal issues involved with how long you can stay in the country; so be informed before the timer starts.

By being aware of your rights and the legal protections in place, you can navigate the US job market with confidence and ensure a fair and just working environment.

Josh Pugh

Josh Pugh

A business founding, digital marketing focused, charity driving, community builder from South Australia, living in New York City. After moving in 2017, Josh realized that there was an opportunity to curate and help the community of expats who moved to the United States – and launched America Josh.View Author posts

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