What Does It Mean To Be An ‘At-Will’ Employee?

If you have read your employee handbook, you have likely seen something like the following language:

“Employment at XYZ Company is ‘at-will,’ meaning, you or the Company can choose to end the employment relationship at any time and for any reason or no reason at all.”

It seems like a simple concept – if you don’t like your job, you can leave whenever you want. If the Company decides they are no longer happy with you, they can terminate you whenever they choose. Employers often hide behind this policy and in our view, that’s a mistake. An employee is called into an office for Human Resources and is informed of their termination but given no explanation about why.

The employer says, “you are an at-will employee, we don’t have to give you a reason.” While this is technically true, it leaves the employee wondering what the real motive is. Employers rarely fire someone for “no reason.”

Questions To Ask If You’ve Been Terminated Without Reason

When a terminated employee calls the employment law offices of Agee Clymer, we typically ask a series of questions designed to uncover the true reason behind the termination, for example:

• Are you in a protected group because of your race, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, national origin, or military status?

• Have you used family medical leave, or have you had a work-related injury, and have you detected that your employer was not happy about you missing work or filing a claim?

• Will you be replaced?

• Have you reported safety issues or filed a complaint with Human Resources?

The Rights Held By An ‘At-Will’ Employee

You see, even at-will employees have some rights in the workplace, including: 

• The right to work in an environment free from unlawful discrimination and harassment.

• The right to work in a safe work environment.

• If injured at work, at-will employees have the right to file a worker’s compensation claim.

• If eligible, at-will employees have the right to take family medical leave without negative repercussions and must be restored to their former position (or a comparable one) when they return to work.

• The right to report unlawful behavior without retaliation.

• The right to form or join a union.

• The right to question income and discuss pay with co-workers.

Please understand that having rights does not mean you will not be fired. It just means that if you are terminated for an unlawful reason, you may have a cause of action to pursue against your employer.

Ohio Law Advice For Protected ‘At-Will’ Employees

If you fall into a protected category or assert your rights, always document your issues. If, for example, you have a verbal conversation with your supervisor about harassment or a safety issue, follow up with an email copied to your personal email account. If you are called into a disciplinary meeting or counseling session, the law in Ohio allows you to record the conversation without the other person’s permission, or ask that you be allowed to have a witness.

When presented with discipline or a performance evaluation that you disagree with, it’s OK to sign an acknowledgment of receipt, but you should also leave a written comment stating that you disagree. Be respectful. Listen more than you talk. And finally, do not hesitate to call the offices of Agee Clymer for additional Ohio employment law advice & case reviews: (614) 221-3318.