What Does "At-Will" Employment Really Mean?

If you have been out in the workforce, you have no doubt been told you are an "at-will employee," or at least heard the term. But, do you understand what that actually means? More importantly, do you understand what your rights are in Alabama, even though you are considered an "at-will" employee?

The term means just what it suggests – that your employer can end your employment at will – i.e., whenever he chooses to do so. Generally speaking, you can be fired for nearly any reason, and it doesn't even have to be a good reason. The law presumes that you are employed at will unless you have some proof that your employer intended otherwise when you were hired. Such proof is rare, since most employers take painstaking efforts to ensure you retain your at-will status. In fact, you can usually find a statement to that effect in your employer's written policies, handbooks, or other employment-related documents. When you first applied for your job, the application you completed and signed probably had an acknowledgement of some kind indicating that you would be considered an at-will employee if you are hired.

Do employees have any rights?

As discouraging as it may sound, there are some important exceptions that can protect you in the workforce. These exceptions have been created by various federal anti-discrimination laws. Even as an at-will employee, you cannot be fired for illegal reasons. If the company you work for is large enough to be subject to federal and state laws (which most are), they cannot fire you based on certain protected characteristics. Employers are also prohibited from firing you because you complain about illegal activities engaged in by your employer, such as discrimination or harassment. It is also illegal for your employer to fire you for filing a workers' compensation claim, or for your employer to fire you if he had a reason to believe that you would file a workers' compensation claim.

Discrimination and Protected Characteristics
Federal laws protect Alabama employees from discrimination based on race, sex (gender), age (over 40), religion, national origin, and disability.

Harassment or Hostile Work Environment
Federal law also prohibits harassment in the workplace based on any of the protected characteristics, either by supervisors or co-workers. Evidence of severe harassment in the workplace can result in significant monetary damages for emotional distress and punitive damages.

Reasonable Accommodation for Disabilities
If you are disabled and require a reasonable accommodation in order to perform your job, your employer is required to provide that accommodation as long as it is reasonable.

Worker's Compensation Retaliation
Employers are prohibited from retaliating against you for filing a worker's compensation claim, as previously noted.

Whistleblower Protections
Employers that receive funds from the federal government, or perform work as part of a federal contract, are prohibited from making false claims for payment to the government. Employees who become aware of such activity and report it to the government cannot be retaliated against.

This is only a partial list of protections for at-will employees in the State of Alabama. If you believe your rights have been violated, you can contact our office at (205) 980-5700 or by email.

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