California Employment Law: What is Employment-At-Will?

Marc McCulloch

In California, employees are generally presumed to be employed “at-will”, a situation which does not guarantee job security. The doctrine of at-will employment allows an employer to terminate an employee at any time, without the need for advance notice and just cause. When an employee is terminated at-will, he or she is not entitled to severance pay or pay in lieu of notice.

Not all employment relationships in California, however, are at-will. Case law, as well, provides certain exceptions in the application of the at-will doctrine.

When your Employment is Not At-Will

Employment is not considered at-will when:

  • Written policies state that you may be fired only on good cause and specify reasons for possible termination of employment.
  • The terms of your employment contract guarantee job security.

In either instance, if you are fired for causes not specified in company policies or your contract, you may have a legal claim against your employer for breach of contract.

Exceptions To At-Will Doctrine

Against public policy: It is a wrongful termination when the termination violates an explicit and well-established policy of the State. Thus, an employee cannot be fired for filing a worker’s compensation claim or for refusing to break the law at the instruction of the employer.

Implied contract exception: The courts will not apply the at-will doctrine when the employer makes oral or written representations to employees regarding job security or when the employee handbook guarantees job tenure or require good cause for terminating employment. Thus, a California court ruled that oral statements saying that the employee shall remain employed as long as his performance is adequate can be construed as creating an implied contract preventing at-will terminations.

Covenant of good faith exception: Specific circumstances such as long years of employment and satisfactory service can create an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing which can prevent an employer from terminating at will.

At-will employees also have rights and cannot be fired for illegal reasons such as job discrimination and in retaliation for exercising employee rights. If your employment has been terminated recently and under questionable circumstances, your California employment lawyer can determine whether you have been wrongfully terminated.

In California, the Marcarian Law Firm has years of experience in protecting the employment of clients with or without at-will clauses. We also handle many other employment cases such as discrimination, harassment, and wage and hour law matters. Contact us today at 800-924-3784 to arrange an initial consultation.


    Contact Us

    * Fields are required
    By clicking submit you are agreeing to the disclaimer and terms and conditions.