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What Is At-Will Employment?

The vast majority of employment relationships in Maryland and D.C. are what the law refers to as “at-will.” This generally means that an employer may terminate an employee for any reason or no reason, while an employee may leave his or her job for any reason or no reason. At-will employment is in contrast to contractual employment, where an employment contract governs the relationship between the employer and the employee. Employment contracts normally contain specific terms relating to job duties, the length of the employment relationship, grounds upon which either party may terminate the employment relationship, etc.

At-will employment comes with a number of benefits and responsibilities for both employers and employees. Below, we will highlight the pros and cons of at-will employment, how to determine whether you are an at-will employee, and what recourse at-will employees have if they are terminated. For more information about any of the topics discussed herein, please contact the Maryland wrongful termination attorneys at The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford.

Why Is Most Employment At-Will in Maryland and Throughout the US?

The American economy is a capitalist system that seeks to allow commerce to operate freely with as little government intervention as possible. To that end, American public policy favors laws that give employers and employees broad freedom to determine their own employment relationships. Any barriers to that freedom (such as non-compete agreements) generally are disfavored by the law. These policies have resulted in the flourishing of an at-will employment system in most of the country, where employers and employees can terminate their employment relationships with one another for (almost) any reason or no reason at all. Such flexibility comes with both pros and cons. Some of the strengths of the at-will employment system are:

  • It offers employees the freedom to accept better jobs at any time
  • It encourages merit-based promotions, rather than promotions based on seniority or contract
  • It allows employers to rapidly fill vacant positions with the most qualified candidates
  • Fear of termination tends to encourage employees to perform at peak capacity

Most (but not all) of the pros of the at-will employment system benefit employers. Some of the cons of this system to employees are:

  • It is uncertain
  • Hiring tends to occur slowly, while firings occur quickly
  • Employees can be fired for any reason — even for minor violations
  • It can create a culture of fear and distrust between employers and employees

For all of its pros and cons, at-will employment is the dominant form of employment nationwide and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Maryland Employment at Will Explained

In its most basic sense, employment at will means that an employer can terminate an employee for almost any reason or even no reason at all. For example, an employer could fire an employee in an “employment at will” state for any of the following reasons: 

  • Being late
  • Making mistakes
  • Having a negative attitude
  • Complaints from customers
  • Annoying coworkers 
  • Making inappropriate comments or using profanity

Ultimately, an employer could fire an employee in an at-will state simply because they don’t like them. While this seems unfair to employees, legislators believe that it makes it easier for employers to hire and replace employees because it reduces their fear of future claims for wrongful termination

Every state has adopted some version of at-will employment, including Maryland. 

However, each state has its own exceptions to the rule, so it’s important to consult with a Maryland employment lawyer to discuss how the law will apply to your situation. 

Exceptions to Employment at Will in Maryland 

The first exception that you should be aware of is that employment at will only applies if there is no written contract or other agreement that sets forth the grounds for termination. Because employment agreements and even oral promises can be vague or otherwise unclear, an employer may have inadvertently limited their ability to terminate an employee at will. A Maryland wrongful termination attorney can review your employment agreement to clarify whether you were wrongfully terminated or, if you are an employer, whether you have limited your ability to terminate employees at will. 

Another important exception in Maryland is referred to as the “public policy” exception. This means that an employer cannot terminate an employee for engaging in actions that are protected by law or if it would be contrary to public policy. For example, it would be against the law to terminate a whistleblower or fire someone for refusing to engage in illegal conduct. 

The other exceptions to employment at will are perhaps unsurprising. In the state of Maryland, you cannot terminate an employee for the following reasons: 

  • Their age, race, gender, national origin, religion, marital status, or disability
  • They have filed a workers’ compensation claim
  • They have demanded payment of overtime wages or other wages they may be owed

Many employers feel that these exceptions threaten to swallow the rule. Whether an employer or an employee, an experienced Maryland employment lawyer can help you navigate these issues. 

Right to Work in Maryland

Several states in America have adopted “right to work” laws that prohibit compulsory union membership. In a right to work state, employers and unions are prohibited from requiring membership in a union as a condition of employment. 

Maryland currently does not have an express “right to work” law. However, Maryland law does provide the following protections to employees: 

  • Employees cannot be forced to join a union
  • Employees cannot be prohibited from joining a union
  • Employees cannot be required to leave a union or terminate their membership

It’s important to note that these protections apply to any express, implied, written or verbal statements made by the employer. 

As a result, a Maryland employer cannot require an employee to join a union as a requirement of their job. Nor can they require the employee to pay union dues. Similarly, an employer cannot prohibit an employee from joining a union or require that they leave the union. These protections apply to all employees, whether new hires or existing employees.  

Our Maryland Wrongful Termination Lawyers Explain Whether You are an At-Will Employee

The law in most states presumes that employment relationships are at-will absent evidence to the contrary. As such, at-will employment is the “default” form of employment, and courts generally will consider all employees at-will unless they can produce an employment contract or other evidence that there was an agreement between the employee and his or her employer. Nonetheless, there are occasionally edge cases in which it is not entirely clear whether a particular employee is employed at-will or on a contractual basis. These edge cases often involve implied contracts — i.e., verbal statements by the employer that induce reliance by the employee. For example, if an employer tells an employee “you will have a job here for at least three years,” a court may not consider that employment relationship to be at-will. If the employer fires the employee in her second year of employment, she may be able to pursue a breach of contract action based upon the implied contract between the parties. To prevent such confusion from arising, many employers require new employees to sign agreements establishing that the employment relationships are at-will.

What to Do If You are Fired in Maryland

As we have covered extensively elsewhere, there are a very limited number of circumstances in which an at-will employee who is terminated may be able to pursue a wrongful termination claim. Principal among these is discrimination. While employers may fire employees for “any reason,” that reason may not include discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age, or any other protected characteristic. Employers also are prohibited from firing at-will employees if the firing would violate public policy, such as firing employees for exercising a legal right (like filing a workers’ compensation claim) or for refusing to participate in illegal activity.

Contact the Maryland Wrongful Termination Lawyers at The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

For more information about pursuing a wrongful termination claim as an at-will employee, please contact the Maryland wrongful termination attorneys at The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford for a consultation by calling 410-514-6099.