WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AN AT-WILL EMPLOYEE?
Many people are surprised to learn that Connecticut is an “at-will” employment state and that most employees are at-will. “At-will” means that an employer can terminate an employee for any legal reason (that is, without having to establish just cause), or for no reason, at any time with no legal consequences. Likewise, an at-will employee is free to leave a job at any time for any reason, or for no reason, without adverse legal consequences. Despite the seeming harshness of this rule, at-will employment is the law in Connecticut and most other states.
There are, however, important limitations to an employer’s ability to terminate an at-will employee. While an employer can terminate an at-will employee for any reason, or for no reason, an employer cannot terminate an employee for an illegal reason. For example, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability or perceived disability, etc. Employers cannot terminate employees as retaliation for complaints of discrimination, for filing a claim for workers’ compensation benefits or for taking an unpaid leave of absence due to personal or family medical issues. Connecticut also recognizes a legal claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy (e.g., retaliation against whistleblowers).
In addition to the exceptions to the employment at-will rule created by laws and court decisions, an employee is not at-will if a contract or employee handbook/manual provides otherwise. Many union contracts, for example, prohibit any form of discipline (including termination) except for just cause. Just cause requires fairness and reasonableness on the part of the employer, and requires that an employee be afforded due process in the case of any disciplinary action (including termination).
There are other exceptions besides those described above that similarly restrict an employer’s right to terminate an at-will employee. Employers should be aware of these limitations, and carefully craft any relevant practices and policies accordingly. If you are an at-will employee and believe you have been wrongfully terminated, you should contact an attorney.