Can at-will employees be wrongfully terminated?

Just because California is an at-will state does not necessarily mean employers can let employees go for any reason at any time.

California is a state in which employment is at will. That is, employees have the freedom to leave their jobs for any reason and at any time unless there is a contract that stipulates otherwise (for example, requiring a month's notice).

Similarly, employers can generally let employees go at any time for any reason. However, there are many exceptions to what employers can do, and this article will look at some of them.

The employer said or implied otherwise

Some employers or managers do not know the law well, and they sometimes toss out promises that relate to job security. For example, "If you can do X task, you'll have a job here for at least five years, guaranteed." To an employer, this may be a casual promise not worthy of being taken seriously. On the other hand, an employee, understandably, might take it seriously.

Another way in which employers purposefully or inadvertently offer job security has to do with progressive discipline. That is, one offense (say, being late three times in a month) merits a warning. Another offense merits a second warning and a plan to promote timely attendance. Only on a third offense does the company say an employee can be fired. Thus, an employee who is fired after being late only three times could say he or she was unjustly let go.

Then there is the fact that many employers have employment contracts that do offer job security and grounds for termination. Often, they do this to recruit the best and brightest, and job security is an attractive lure. So, if an employer has such a contract, it probably cannot legally terminate an employee for certain reasons if the contract says otherwise.

Public policy violations

Many at-will employees are wrongfully terminated due to public policy violations such as sexual harassment, sex discrimination and retaliation. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders are one group particularly affected by such terminations. Other groups include women, nonwhites and non-Christians. People can also be wrongfully let go due to age reasons or for being whistleblowers.

Unions

Many employees belong to unions such as the California Teachers Association. The unions tend to require that termination be allowed only for specific reasons. Thus, if employees belong to a union, employers may have to follow specific termination procedures.

Of course, many employers in California terminate people even when they are not legally allowed to do so. Sometimes, they simply do not know the law. Other times, they mask the true reasons for termination. If an employee believes that his or her termination has been unjust, an attorney can evaluate the case.