An “at-will” employee doesn’t have an employment contract. In Texas and most other states, most employees are assumed to be at-will hires. At-will employees can be terminated at any time, so just because you have a written contract doesn’t mean it overrides your standard “at-will” status. If the reason for termination is unlawful, such as discrimination against age, gender, national origin, disability or religion, it can be overturned, but if your employer decides to terminate you, there are few options for fighting it.
Employee and Employer Relationship
The “employment at will doctrine” presumes that you have no right to continued employment regardless of whether or not there is just cause. Texas Discrimination Law reports that it “creates an imbalance, with employees’ service at the pleasure of employers and being subject to whatever terms employers choose to establish.” Union members and government employees have some protection and recourse in the case of unfairness, bullying, privacy intrusions and so on, but typically, the law is on the employers’ side.
At will termination allows employees to be fired for any reason so long as it isn’t illegal. Usually, state policy protects employees who refuse to perform illegal acts and who report law violations (whistle blowing). If the termination conflicts with standard public policy, such as allowing leave for National Guard activities and other military service, or exercising legal rights like filing a worker’s compensation claim, the law is on your side.
Exceptions to At-Will Employment
Each state provides exceptions to at-will employment. Texas, for example, has three major exceptions to at-will employment. First, collective bargaining agreements, like those made by unions, nearly always require just cause for termination. Just cause is also required to terminate a civil service employee. Finally, if you have an official individual employment agreement, it often stipulates specific causes for termination.
Anti-retaliation statutes keep businesses from bullying employees into certain actions. Your employer cannot fire you for refusing to commit a crime; however, don’t give them other grounds for termination since Sabine Pilot v. Hauck requires that your refusal must be the only reason for termination. You cannot be fired for serving on a jury. You have two years to file the claim. Employees cannot be terminated for reporting abuse or neglect of nursing home patients.
Tort For Wrongful Discharge
If you believe you have suffered wrongful termination, you can file a civil suit against the company called "tort for wrongful discharge." Texas Discrimination Laws states, “This type of lawsuit provides some relief for employees..., but is not available for unfairness in general.” You only qualify for a tort suit if you can prove that the situation falls under specific circumstances including, but not limited to, the anti-retaliation statutes.
The federal government continues to rely on states to determine exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine, says Charles J. Muhl, a former Department of Labor employee in the Monthly Labor Review. There are three major exceptions broadly accepted across the United States. The public-policy exception, the implied-contract exception and the covenant of good faith and fair dealing exception. Regarding these three exceptions, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Rhode Island do not recognize any of them and only eight states recognize their own versions of all of them. The only law that applies in all states is that an employer cannot compel an employee to commit a crime, nor fire her for refusing to do so.
- Texas Discrimination Laws: Your “Employee-at-Will” Rights
- Employment Law Information Network: Employment at Will Texas
- Lawyers: Employees: Job Termination Rights FAQs
- Lawyers: Employment Law in Texas
- “Monthly Labor Review”; The Employment-At-Will Doctrine: Three Major Exceptions; Charles J. Muhl; January 2001.
Dana Griffin has written for a number of guides, trade and travel periodicals since 1999. She has also been published in "The Branson Insider" newspaper. Griffin is a CPR/first-aid instructor trainer for the American Red Cross, owns a business and continues to write for publications. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English composition from Vanguard University.