What Does At-Will Employment Mean in California?

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What Does At-Will Employment Mean in California?
Feb 02

California is one of many US states that upholds an “at-will” employment standard. This means that employment relationships exist at the will of both employees and employers. Both parties have the right to end a working relationship at any time for almost any reason or no reason at all, and there is no legal requirement to provide advance notice. However, many people interpret the at-will employment law to mean that an employer can fire any employee for any reason whenever they wish, but this is not entirely accurate.

Employers do enjoy broad flexibility when it comes to making hiring and firing decisions, but they cannot base these decisions on illegal motives. Specifically, employers cannot discriminate against protected personal qualities in their hiring and firing practices. These rules are enforced at the federal level by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and California enforces state-level laws that aim to prevent employee discrimination and harassment.

How Does At-Will Employment Work?

At-will employment applies to most, but not all, work relationships in California. Some employees will have employment contracts that clearly stipulate the terms and conditions that both the employer and the employee must follow. In most cases, an employment contract will define the circumstances in which the employer can fire an employee. However, if an employee does not have a contract, they are subject to the at-will employment standard.

The logic behind the at-will employment law is to provide employees with legal grounds to end their employment at their discretion without facing legal repercussions. The reality is that the at-will employment standard makes many employees feel as though their jobs are held hostage, and they could be fired on a whim.

What Is Wrongful Termination?

While employers generally have the flexibility to fire employees at their discretion, they may not discriminate against an employee’s protected personal qualities in making firing decisions. For example, if an employer must eliminate a position held by two employees, they cannot choose to fire one employee on the basis of their race, religion, or other personal qualities. Wrongful termination cases are especially difficult for affected employees because it is relatively easy for an employer to disguise their motives behind a firing and hide behind at-will employment law to justify the decision. However, an employee who has been wrongfully terminated should consult an experienced employment law attorney to help them hold the employer accountable for discrimination.

The first step in holding an employer accountable for wrongful termination is to file a claim with the EEOC outlining the details of the situation. The employee can consult their attorney for assistance in filling out necessary claim paperwork and gathering evidence they may need to substantiate their claim. This may include statements from coworkers and past employees or records of correspondence between the employer and the employee. If the EEOC determines a termination was wrongful and abuse of California’s at-will employment law, they will send the claimant a Notice of Right to Sue that allows them to proceed with a civil claim against the employer for wrongful termination.

A successful EEOC complaint provides the legal backing an employee needs to hold an employer accountable for a wrongful termination claim. The EEOC may award the claimant damages based on the severity of the employer’s actions and the number of employees the employer has. Additionally, a civil suit can potentially allow the employee to recover lost income and compensation for the employer’s intentional infliction of emotional distress.


Q: Can You Be Fired for No Reason in California?

A: The at-will employment law of California allows an employer to fire an employee with or without cause and with or without notice for any lawful reason. This does not mean an employer can fire an employee for no reason or for an illegal reason. It would be difficult for any employer to justify a firing for “no reason” and will likely cite some justification for a firing decision, but they may not base such decisions on illegal, discriminatory reasons.

Q: What Does It Mean That California Is an At-Will State?

A: The at-will employment law of California means that all employees subject to this law have the right to terminate a working relationship at any time with or without notice to their employer. It also means an employer can use any legal reason to terminate an employee at any time. This law can seem unbalanced in favor of employers, but the logic behind it is that it prevents employees from feeling stuck in jobs they do not wish to maintain.

Q: What Are the Three Exceptions to Employment-At-Will?

A: At-will employment does not apply to all work relationships. The three exceptions are implied contracts of good faith, formal and implied employment contracts, and public policy. An employer cannot violate a public policy in firing an employee, and if there is any standing contract or agreement between an employee and an employer, the employer cannot violate the terms of such an agreement in firing the employee.

Q: Can I Sue an Employer After an At-Will Firing?

A: At-will employment allows an employer to fire you at any time for any legal reason. However, if you believe the employer discriminated against you or based the decision to fire you on your race, religion, sex, or other legally protected personal qualities, you should speak with an employment law attorney as soon as possible to determine whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination claim.

Navigating the employment laws of California can be challenging, and the at-will employment standard often seems like a roadblock preventing an employee from holding an employer accountable for wrongful termination. However, an experienced attorney can help their client gather the evidence they need for a full EEOC complaint that holds the employer accountable. Clark Employment Law, APC, has successfully helped many clients in California succeed with their wrongful termination cases, and we can apply our resources and experience to your case. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and learn more about the legal services we offer.

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