Fire At Will: What Does it Mean At Work?

fire at will
Frustrated young woman in yellow sweater standing at table and touching face with hand while packing stuff in office after dismissal

Oftentimes, new employees and old job applicants fail to read employment contracts or employee handbooks during job applications. This way, they always ignorantly agree to the ‘fire at will’ on the contract.

Maybe you have been let go at your job one time. Or you know someone who has for no reason only to find that they agreed to the ‘fire-at-will’ employment agreement during their employment.

Suppose you are learning about ‘fire-at-will’ for the first time; this article aims to explain what a fire at will at work means.

Also, this article is for at business owners who employ the fire-at-will employment status.

What Does It Mean to Get Fired?

It will help to understand what it means to get fired before we proceed. Basically, getting fired means being let go from your job. 

You get fired when an employer terminates your employment against your will. Most times, your employer may not have valid reasons for firing you. When this happens, it’s usually because you do not have an employment contract or a bargaining right.

Simply, it means that you are an at-will employee, and your employer has the right and freedom to fire you without notice.

Fire at Will

Fire-at-will is also ’employment at will’ or ‘at will.’

It is a condition stating that your employer can fire you at any time for no reason. And also, you may have very insufficient rights to fight over your termination. 

As an at-will employee, your employer does not need any good reasons to fire you. 

What is Fire at Will?

Fire-at-will or at-will employment is an agreement between an employer and an employee that indicates that an employer has the right to fire you at work without a good cause.

This employment status is most common in the United States of America and the District of Columbia.

In the locations mentioned above, at-will employment is their default employment. This is unless there is an agreement or an employment contract that states otherwise.

However, this kind of employment has a great deal of flexibility both for the employee as well as the employer. 

It works both ways:

  • An employer can terminate your employment without disclosing the reason for firing you.
  • An employee can decide to resign from a job without notifying the employer or disclosing their cause for leaving.

In other words, fire-at-will employment is a principle indicating that employees are agents who voluntarily enter employment agreements and can up and leave whenever they want.

That is, the employment agreement can be broken by either party without a good cause. 

Unfortunately, most new employees sign their job acceptance letters without carefully reading through them. They may agree to a hire and fire-at-will employment status when the most important thing to them is mob security.

Yes, an at-will employer has no job security and could be let go at any time with no cause.

While you’re here, you may want to check out UNIT ELASTIC: What is Unit Elastic in Economics?

What Does Fire-at Will Mean for Employers?

While you learn about this, it is crucial to have a clear understanding of what this means to employers as much as it means to you as an employee.

There are pros and cons of hiring at-will employers. This section aims at discussing some of the most important reasons business owners go for at-will employment contracts.

1. For a faster and easier termination process

This is one of the top reasons employers hire at-will employees. When an employee is not an at-will employer, and you need to let them go from the job, it usually involves lengthy discussions as well as complicated negotiations and delays.

However, at-will employment contracts do not involve all of those. It does not require that an employer tell an employee why they are let go unless they want. 

Most times, employees could be underperforming or constantly going against the company’s rules. An at-will employment makes firing them all easier without any complicated negotiations.

2. It involves more flexible operations and a better ending

With an at-will employment status, you are not obligated to engage with the employee in multiple negotiations and discussions concerning their firing. 

This can help businesses keep free from contractual and renegotiating obligations, and further help them adapt to changes.

3. It causes an increased effort on employee merit

While most promotions at work are done due to seniority or the number of years an employee has devoted to the business, an at-will employment helps the employers to primarily focus on merits.

To further explain this, an at-will employment helps to focus on the best performing and productive employees at work and promote them. This is regardless of if or not they have been with the organization for long.

Now that you understand the reasons employers employ the at-will and fire-at-will employment, here are some cons to that employment status.

Cons of Hiring At-Will Employees

1. Employers who quit

An at-will employer who knows their status could up and quit their job one day without notice. This could make the business scramble. Also, they will go through the process of finding their replacement, especially if their role is a significant one in the organization.

2. Hiring the low-value employees

For most employees with high value looking for stable employment, at-will employment will never be an option.

If an employee knows an employer can sack them whenever or they too can leave whenever they may tend to be unserious at their job. Even worse, they can decide to leave at such a crucial time, which can make the organization perform poorly.

3. Employee’s inability to tell all

An at-will employee may have a hard time expressing their needs and fears as well as negotiating for benefits for fear of being fired without warning.

This could adversely affect a company’s growth because when employees do not give feedback or share their opinions or operate in a free and healthy working environment, the growth of the organization will fade with time.

Can an At-Will Employee Sue a Business for Wrongful Termination?

Yes, an at-will employee can sue your business when they are wrongly terminated.

Basically, there is a federal and state labor laws protecting at-will employees from being wrongfully terminated. While there are some exceptions, these are some common circumstances that could lead to a wrongful termination lawsuit:

  • When there is no written or implied at-will employment status and the employee is fired for no reason.
  • When there’s a violation of good faith and fair dealings, such as when an employer fires an employee to avert obligations such as paying health or retirement benefits.
  • An at-will employee can sue a business when there’s a violation of public policy, such as firing an employee because they requested time off to vote.
  • When a business violates civil rights and anti-discrimination based on religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, and lots others.
  • When an employee is terminated as a result of another occurrence, such as filing a sexual harassment charge against a co-worker.
  • If an employee is fired for no reason and their file reflects that, but the employer states otherwise.
  • When an employer engaged in defamatory acts in relation to the employee’s termination.

What are the Steps Employers Can Take When Hiring At-Will Employees?

Although at-will employment could also mean good both for an employer and the employee, mistakes are bound to happen, and things can go bad or out of place.

This section discusses the number of steps that experts agree that business owners can take when hiring at-will employees.

1. Quote/Cite “Fire-at-Will” or “At-Will” Status in Employment Handbooks and Offer Letters

Basically, offer letters, as well as employee handbooks, should clearly show the status of the employment if it is an at-will employment. 

This could be followed by a short explanation of what the status entails so that it is fair that an employee knows what they are getting into.

Employees deserve to know that their employment status is an ‘fire-at-will’ employment, and they could be fired at any time at their job, even worse, for no good reason.

They should be allowed to decide on accepting an at-will employment themselves.

2. Draw up an agreement.

After you have done the first, it will be essential to draw up a separate document where an employee indicates they have acknowledged the employment status.

This document could be labeled “At-Will Acknowledgement” or “At-Will Employment Agreement.”

If not, employees who are well versed in the law could claim that there was no implied contract stating that their employment was at-will when their employment is terminated.

3. Elaborate on the Employment Status

Ensure that you mention that the employment is at-will in as many places as possible in the employee handbook and offer letter.

You may need to mention that the status stays the same, and unless reversed by the company authorities, no new company policies, entities, or actions could change that.

4. Mind what you say

There have been cases in interviews where the interviewer unknowingly made oral promises to the interviewee.

This has happened with words like, “We do not fire anyone around here for no cause.”

If the position or employment has an at-will employment status and an employer says that, it can be considered an oral promise, and an at-will employee who gets terminated may hold onto that.

Also, it may be deceiving too because most new employees are seeking stable employment. That statement further validates that their search for stable employment has come to an end.

Imagine how they would feel when they learn in the long run that it was at-will employment all the while.

It’s best to be mindful of saying that or anything related to new or potential employees.

Also, you may want to avoid making promising statements such as, “You could be managing this project by this time next year.”

This statement or related ones could convey the same messages as the first.

Having known that, there are a few things employers should do when terminating at-will employees. 

Also, you may want to read What is a Bear Hug in Business: Definition & How It Works

What Employees Should Do When Terminating At-Will Employees

Provided that as an employer, you’re not violating the Civil Rights Act or other laws, there’s nothing wrong with the fire-at-will employment status, especially if the employee was aware of their employment status from the statement.

Assuming everything is in place, here are some things you need to know when firing at will:

1. Know the law

Be aware that it is improper to fire an employee for no good cause or an unlawful reason. Engage an attorney before firing an employee at will.

2. Document

While you’re not obligated to do this, it is only human and fair to discuss why an employee’s employment is being terminated.

If they are sacked for poor performances or any other reason, it should be documented so they can be referenced should any case arise.

3. Be consistent

You must need to be consistent; else, issues may arise.

Once you have fired an employee at will for a cause, ensure that when the next employee commits the same offense as the first, they are fired too.

FAQs Fire At Will

What is a fire at will at work?

Fire at will is also referred to as ’employment at will’ or ‘at will.’

It is a condition stating that your employer can fire you at any time for any reason, and you have very insufficient rights to fight over your termination.

Is fire at will the same as at-will employment?

 Fire at will is also referred to as ’employment at will’ or ‘at will.’

Can an At-Will Employee Sue a Business for Wrongful Termination?

Yes, an at-will employee can sue your business when they are wrongly terminated.

  • When there is no written or implied at-will employment status and the employee is fired for no reason.
  • When there’s a violation of good faith and fair dealings, such as when an employer fires an employee to avert obligations such as paying health or retirement benefits.
  • An at-will employee can sue a business when there’s a violation of public policy, such as firing an employee because they requested time off to vote.
  • When a business violates civil rights and anti-discrimination based on religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, etc.
  • When an employee is terminated as a result of another occurrence, such as filing a sexual harassment charge against a co-worker.
  • If an employee is fired for no reason and their file reflects that, but the employer states otherwise.
  • When an employer engaged in defamatory acts in relation to the employee’s termination.

Conclusion

As a job seeker, now that you understand what fire at will means at work, you may want to begin to go through your offer letter carefully and even ask your interviewer during the interview or before to ensure that you have job security.

Reference

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