Understanding California’s employment-at-will doctrine

If you feel as if your employer terminated you unfairly, your natural reaction may be to consider filing a complaint. Whether your employer was acting outside of the law in firing you depends on several factors, among them whether the state’s employment-at-will doctrine applies to you. 

What does employment at will mean, though, and how does it help determine whether you were a victim of wrongful termination? 

The employment-at-will concept 

Per the Society of Human Resource Professionals, the fact that California is an employment-at-will state means that most of the time, your employer has the right to fire you at any time, and for almost any reason. There is an important exception, however. Even in an employment-at-will state, your employer may not fire you due to something that involves one of your protected rights. 

In other words, he or she may not terminate you because of your religious beliefs, or because you chose to blow the whistle about unsafe working conditions or safety violations. Your employer also may not fire you when you have a contract in place that outlines the duration of your employment. 

Exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine 

There are some California employees who do not fall under the employment-at-will umbrella. If you earn your living in the public sector, or if you are a representative of a union or covered by a collective bargaining agreement that has a “just cause” standard for firing workers, the employment-at-will doctrine may not apply. 

The same may hold true if you have a written employment contract dictating your employer must have “good cause” to fire you, or if that employer said or did something that negates the presumption of employment at will. More information is available on our webpage.