Employment in California is presumed to be “at will” unless otherwise agreed upon between the employer and employee.  “At will” employment means that an employer can terminate the employee for any justifiable reason – or even no reason at all.  The same is true for an employee.  The employee may resign from his or her employment at any time.  “At will” employment is applied to cases wherein there is no clear contract defining the relationship between employer and employee.

This does not mean however that an employer can just dismiss an employee.  California law provides a number of exceptions to the “at will” rule. Generally, these exceptions include:

Discrimination.  An employer cannot terminate the employment of an employee on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, age, race, religion, marital status, pregnancy and/or disability.  Terminating employment under these conditions constitutes acts of discrimination. It is also illegal to dismiss an employee who refuses to carry out orders which the employee finds to be illegal.

Retaliation.  It may be possible that an employee may report illegal practices or unfit working conditions in the workplace. The employee may also report cases of unfair labor practices; or file for leave or a claim for worker’s compensation.  These are all within an employee’s rights.  A company cannot fire an employee in retaliation for such “whistleblowing” activities of the employee or for even filing a claim for leave or compensation due to them.

Implicit Labor Contract. An employer may commit to their employees the promise of stable employment for as long as the employer is satisfied with the employee’s performance. In such cases, the employment status may have changed from “at will” to that of an implicit contract of employment where the employee can only be dismissed for just cause such as unsatisfactory job performance.  The employer’s promise or commitment need not be written.  A verbal promise may be sufficient for an employee to prove that his employment status is now that with an implicit contract.  However, if there is no written contract, it may be difficult for an employee to prove there was a change in their employment status.

It is in the best interest of an employee to consult an employment attorney when making decisions in regards to their employment.  The employee’s relationship with his or her lawyer should ideally begin when the employee begins working for the new employer.  That way the lawyer can apprise the employee of his or her rights as an employee and advise of any changes in employment status during employment.  Being aware of his or her rights will save an employee much grief and anxiety in the event of termination.

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