So you're filling out a job application. Or maybe you're one of the lucky ones who got a job and have now been handed an employee handbook or contract. Either way, chances are good you are reading a paragraph about employment at will. But what is it?
In most countries and in the U.S. in every state except Montana, which allows employees a probationary period, if you are employed at will your employer does not need good cause to fire you. More specifically, employees who do not have contracts guaranteeing employment for a specific period of time are considered to be at-will employees. Unfortunately most, if not all, documentation provided to employees fails to go into much more detail than that.
So what's this good cause business anyway? And what the hell is up with being able to fire you without it? Can your boss fire you for stinking up the bathroom or for having a stupid haircut or because you have an annoying laugh? Well...actually, yes, technically they can. Any reason not expressly prohibited by law (race, religion, gender, et al., as well as anyone protected under worker's compensation) is fair game for being a reason for dismissal. But employers tend to word this delicately. Personality conflict is pretty much the catch-all term for those grey area firings. It is not easy to tell someone "well, the thing is, everyone here hates you" even if it's true and the real, valid reason for termination. Workplace atmospheres are sensitive things, and anything that compromises the team's ability to get the job done is a liability in the end. Excessively argumentative, negative, or insubordinate employees are a bane on a productive workforce.
Whatever the reason, an employee who distresses the general populace in such a way that productivity is compromised has to go, and there has to be a humane, diplomatic way to make this happen, because even though at-will employees have very little legal recourse there are still lawsuit-happy sorts out there and most employers would rather not spend a day in court, even if they're guaranteed to win. The HR nightmare that ensues from a litigious erstwhile employee is enough to ruin everyone's day at least for a little while. A prudent HR person knows this and plans the exit interview accordingly.
Unfortunately, pretty wording often takes a bow in favour of "the law says I can do this, so I'll be god damned if I won't take full advantage of it." Wanna fire someone so you can hire your sister in his place? Cool beans as long as he slapped his John Hancock on that there at-will employment agreement. That is not to say it's right, but it certainly does happen. The only insurance against being constantly potentially on the chopping block is to be a contract employee. I will get into employment contracts in a future, more detailed write-up but for brevity's sake said contract, reviewed and signed by both employer and employee, outlines among other things the grounds for termination for the position, typically such no-brainers as failing to fulfill the terms of the contract (performance), illicit drug use, or illegal or unethical behaviour in the workplace. Dismissing the employee for any reason outside these grounds would be unlawful. At-will employees, however, receive no such protection as nothing is in writing and therefore legally binding, aside from the employee's compliance with the at-will employment agreement.
Unfortunately them's the grits, cowboy. Your boss may be a colossal douchebag and fire you for the dumbest reason ever, and there's a good chance it's unfair, but there's little justice to be had aside from the satisfaction of pulling up your pants and moving on to the next party, hopefully not moving on to be employed by another scurrilous bastard.