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What is 'at-will' employment?

California employees and others in many parts of the country have no doubt heard the phrase "at-will employment." What is it, though, and how does it affect employees who fall into this category?

At-will employment means that either an employee or an employer can terminate employment at any time -- for nearly any reason. While this technically may be the definition, there are some exceptions to this that have been created by public policy, statutes or the courts. Examples of a few of those exceptions include:

-- Termination for refusing to obey an order to do something illegal.

-- Joining in union activities.

-- Termination because of discrimination for race, sex, religion or other factors.

-- Termination because you are pregnant.

-- Termination because you requested time off under the Family Medical Leave Act.

-- Termination because you stood behind a fellow employee who was being discriminated or retaliated against.

Exceptions to at-will employment include employees who are under contract or protected by a collective bargaining agreement.

When an employer terminates an employee for the above actions or situations, the employee has a right to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against his or her employer. There may be other claims that may be filed as well, such as a sexual harassment or racial discrimination claim.

Employees who have been found by the court to have been wrongfully terminated may receive compensation for back wages and other monetary losses, but they may also receive their job back. In some cases, an employee may not wish to return to his or her place of employment. An employment rights attorney can provide more information.

Source: Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development, "At-Will Employment and Wrongful Termination" Aug. 23, 2014

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