Unfairly fired? At-will employment and when you have a case

So you got fired from your job and you don’t know why. You came in to work one day and your boss told you she was letting you go. She did not give you an explanation; she simply showed you the door. Or maybe she told you the move was to save money, or perhaps they simply did not like your attitude around the office. These explanations, or non-explanations, may make a lot of people who lost their jobs angry. But it does not make the firings illegal. Just because you felt like you lost your job for an unfair reason does not mean you have a means of legal recourse. The reason for this is that a majority of employees in today’s work force are “at-will” employees. Let’s take a look at what an at-will employment is and what its consequences are.

At-will employment

At-will employment is basically defined in the name. It means that an employer may terminate an employee at its own will with no legal recourse for the terminated person. The employer can fire the employee for a good reason, a bad reason, or for no reason at all. Thus an at-will employee will have no cause of action for wrongful termination against the employer except under limited circumstances. Let’s take a look at the circumstances where the employee will have recourse: when there is a contractual provision protecting the employee or where the firing violates a statute or public policy.

Contractual protections for at-will employees

If an employee is at-will, then they almost certainly do not have an employment contract. If they do have an employment contract then the terms of the contract will control the relationship. With a contract the party is no longer at-will and the employee may only be discharged pursuant to the terms of the contract. So if you wish to protect yourself from at-will status it is best to have a contract with your employer and to lay out the acceptable grounds for firing in the contract itself.

Statutory provisions

Where a firing is against a statutory provision then an at-will employee may have recourse. An example of these laws protecting at will employees are the Title VII protections against discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, etc. The USERRA laws that protect employers from firing based on military service and the laws protecting employees from sexual harassment or a hostile work environment. Where there is a statutory remedy available the employee’s recourse is not for wrongful discharge, but rather under the statutes themselves.

Public policy

In Pennsylvania, for this exception to apply, the firing of the at-will employee must have been contrary to Pennsylvania public policy.  An example of a termination of an employee that violates public policy is where an employer fires someone who refused to do something illegal, such as serve an underage patron alcohol. Another example would be where an employee was fired for exercising his right to free speech by supporting a political advocacy group or some other political organization. Although rare, some of the public policy protections are very strong.


At-will employees can be fired at any whim of their employers. The only protections against this are contractual provisions, statutory recourse or public policy. If you think that your firing was against any of these exceptions contact a local employment attorney.