At-Will Employment: What It Means and Important Exceptions

You might see it in the job posting, hear it in the interview, or read it in your offer letter, but the words “at-will” carry a lot of weight when it comes to jobs. This simple term defines your relationship with your employer and gives each side certain rights.

What Is “At-Will” Employment? Definition & Meaning 

At-will employment means that you and your employer are not obligated to continue your professional relationship. You can quit your job at any time without a reason, and your employer can terminate your employment at any time without a reason. Neither side is required to give advance notice that the employment relationship is ending (except in the case of a layoff under certain circumstances).

The employer, however, also has the right to change the terms of the employment relationship at any time without advance notice and generally without consequences. This includes:

  • Cutting pay
  • Reducing or terminating benefits
  • Changing or eliminating paid time off
  • Altering existing work schedules 

Am I an At-Will Employee?

Likely, yes. Outside of Montana, all states allow employment-at-will arrangements. And unless your employer has explicitly stated otherwise, you are probably an at-will employee. When in doubt, check your offer letter or the employee handbook, which should state the terms of your employment.

Limitations and Exceptions of At-Will Employment

The federal government has no rules or regulations regarding at-will employment. Individual states are free to set their own rules regarding at-will employment. However, some federal laws supersede state at-will employment laws.

Here are some of the important limitations and exceptions of at-will employment.

Workers With a Contract

Some workers are contract employees. Generally, this means there is a written contract between employer and employee that outlines the specifics of compensation, termination, and everything else regarding the working relationship. Workers in a union or those with a collective bargaining agreement are examples.

Implied Contracts

Whether or not a physical document exists, if there’s an implied contract, you are not an at-will employee. An implied contract may exist based on what the employer has said about your work relationship or through their actions (such as providing raises and annual reviews).

However, in most states, it’s up to the employee to prove the implied contract exists.

Good Faith and Fair Dealing

In some states, an employer cannot fire you “in bad faith.” For example, if you have a chronic health condition and your employer fires you because the health insurance premiums have increased for the entire company, the employer is acting in “bad faith.” 

Public Policy

Some states also have a public policy exception that prohibits employers from firing at-will employees.

For example, if an employee refuses to perform an illegal act at the employer’s direction, the worker cannot be fired. Likewise, if the employee has to report for National Guard duty, the employer cannot fire them for missing work.


Federal and state laws prohibit employers from discriminating against people in protected classes. This protection extends to at-will employees fired for being in one of these groups.


Retaliation is another exception to the at-will agreement. For example, if an employee reports wrongdoing by their employer, they cannot be fired due to their whistleblowing.

Know Your Rights

While it may seem that the employer holds all the cards in an at-will arrangement, employees are entitled to certain protections. Know your rights under an at-will work agreement and consult with an attorney for clarity and guidance.

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