In all U.S. states except Montana, at-will is the default employment relationship. That is, unless otherwise stated via contract or collective bargaining agreement, employees are hired on an at-will basis. At-will employment may be terminated at any time, for any reason that is not in violation of the law, or for no reason.
Under an at-will contractual relationship, you can be fired without benefit of warning and without having to be given cause. That is, your employer is not obligated to justify firing you for a specific reason, such as force reduction, disciplinary action or otherwise. You cannot, however, be terminated for reason that violates public policy. Federal, and some state, laws prohibit wrongful discharge based on discrimination, retaliation or similar statutes.
There are other exceptions to this policy, depending on where you work and whether any other contractual arrangement has been made between your employer and you. Several states have incorporated a good faith and fair dealing covenant by which the law in those states interpret at-will employment relationships to determine whether a termination was for just cause, or without malice.
Implied contracts or promises are another exception to at-will employment. Statements or documents that imply a different employment arrangement can nullify the assumed at-will relationship. For instance, your boss tells you one day that as long as your work is up to par, you’ll have job security. An email sent from corporate specifies performance goals to be met to qualify for a promotion.
Again, laws vary by state, and several states do include an implied contract exception. In those states, employers may hire on an at-will contract but still include language that permits termination for specific cause only.
Employment that includes probationary periods may also be regarded as an exception to the at-will relationship. If employees are given a specified period during which they are to be trained and evaluated, the implied promise is to suggest job security during that period except for cause, e.g. poor performance, gross misconduct, etc.
Absent any documentation or statement to the contrary, the assumption is that employment is on an at-will basis. If you have been terminated under an at-will contract, you have fairly limited legal recourse. Your success in contesting the dismissal will depend on your ability to prove that you were not hired at will. Oral statements are by nature difficult to prove, and at-will employers tend to be careful about what they put in writing to avoid litigation.
You will have to look over all of the documents provided by your employer, and try to find anything that indicates specific cause for dismissal, or produce witnesses who can corroborate any verbal promises made by your boss.
Your chances of contesting your dismissal will also depend on whether a specific reason was given for your discharge. Filing a claim of wrongful discharge will have greater weight if there’s a reason for termination for you to dispute. In other words, if you’ve been informed by your boss that you’ve been fired for performance issues, it’s possible to refute this with personnel files or evaluation reports. If you can demonstrate that your work is commensurate with that of other employees who were not discharged, then you have evidence of a wrongful termination.
If you’ve been fired from an at-will job, your best bet is to contact a labor attorney in your state who can explain the laws relevant to your case. An employment lawyer can tell you how the law interprets at-will employment in the state where you work. In the meantime, read through all of the paperwork you’ve signed or been provided by your employer. A signed at-will agreement will usually be the final word on the matter in most courts, regardless of where you work.