While we see the at-will wording became now standard in virtually any contract and employee handbook of our clients, in some instances, there still could be a way out of this catch-all “reason” for termination.
First, to get the picture, the counterpart of the at-will employment would be a contract-based employment, meaning that such an employee could be fired only for cause. For an employer the catch is that usually if a fired “for cause” employee disagrees with the employer’s decision for her firing, the employee could challenge the decision, and it may be reviewed, in hindsight by lawyers, judge, and jury. If the jury concludes that the employer did not have cause for firing, then the fired employee can be awarded back pay, front pay, other possible damages, or even reinstatement with the employer – not something the employer would be craving for.
Now, if the at-will employment is not clearly communicated though all employer’s paperwork and documentation, or if it is compromised by vague verbal promises or representation of the employer’s hiring manager or other staff in a leading position, we get into the grey area of “he said, she said world,” and the employer again may end up being forced to submit the question whether the employment was at-will to a jury.
In addition, the employer itself may compromise its status of an at-will employer by not carefully updating its old documentation and leaving there contradicting statements. For example, its offer letter may mention a long-term employment creating certain expectations in the newly hired employee. A handbook may have a disciplining provision mentioning warning(s) prior to termination, thus assuming that there would be a cause for the termination. Or there could be a probation period, impliedly assuming that the employees who successfully pass the probation would not be terminated without cause.
In general, fine details do matter and may give you a chance to fire back at the employer who fires you without reason. That could be anything that was described above. Or it could be a “due process” or the word “cause” referring to discipline or discharge process. Or that could be statements made by your employer’s managers, such as “we don’t fire for no good reason,” or “we expect you to stay with us for many years to come.”
Therefore, in some situations when you have even a slight reason to think you could have a reasonable expectation that your employment was not just at-will but think that it would be impossible to prove, think again, or contact us for a free evaluation of your situation.