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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
  • Hirings tend 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.

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.