The first thing to know about the definition of at-will is that most people in the US are likely to be at-will employees. “At-will” means that both employer and employee have the freedom to end the relationship at any time.
This doesn’t mean that the employee isn’t protected in certain circumstances and that the employer doesn’t have to exercise caution in terminating an employee. It simply means that the employer doesn’t have to give “good cause” to terminate employment.
Both employers and employees need to be aware of situations that can affect this standard and give grounds for legal challenge.
The first possibility is that the employee is protected in some way by circumstances such as the following:
- Participation in a protected activity like whistle-blowing
- Termination based on the employee’s race, age etc., or any class that is protected against discrimination
- Termination when the employee was on job-protected leave
- Employee participation in an investigation of a discrimination complaint.
The second possibility is that the employer has given the employee grounds to understand they will be fired for “good cause” rather than at-will. When an employment contract is signed, often employees sign up explicitly to the “at-will” arrangement. With a contract, an employer has every right to refer to this if legal action is brought. Sometimes contracts specify good cause, and the reverse of this is true. There are also situations where employers may give indication that the employee will only be fired for good cause. Even verbal statements (especially repeated) can be used as evidence to help employees win cases.
Broadly, in Massachusetts an at-will employee is an employee either with a contract that specifically states they are an at-will employee, or in most other positions without a contract stating that they are not. The only state that has an exception to the at-will law is Montana, where there is a probationary period.
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