can at will employees be fired for any reason

Can At-Will Employees Be Fired for Any Reason?

By Thomas McKinney

The majority of workers in New Jersey are at-will employees. These are employees that are not subject to an employment contract nor are they members of a union. At-will employees can, for the most part, be terminated from employment at any time and for pretty much any reason. They are also able to quit at any time and for any reason without penalty. It is important to know, however, that while at-will employees can be fired for a wide range of reasons, they still cannot be fired for any reason. Because of this, at-will employees can still suffer wrongful terminations and, thus, may be entitled to legal remedies.

What Constitutes Wrongful Termination in an At-Will State?

At-will employees can be subject to a number of adverse employment actions for many reasons. They can be fired. They can be demoted. They can have their pay cut. They can have their hours cut. Any of these things could happen because the at-will employee:

  • Had a poor attitude
  • Had poor job performance
  • Received customer complaints
  • Failed a drug test
  • Had a poor attendance record

These are all acceptable reasons for an adverse employment action to be taken against an at-will employee. It is also common for the employee to be well aware of why they are being fired or demoted even when the employer does not have to give them a reason.

While at-will employees can be terminated or suffer an adverse employment action for a number of reasons, an employer cannot take such action against an employee for discriminatory reasons. At-will employees may not have as many protections as contract employees or union employees, but they are subject to the protections afforded by state and federal anti-discrimination laws. An employer cannot terminate an at-will employee because of their membership or association with a protected class, including those based on:

  • Race
  • Sex
  • Gender identity
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Military status
  • Pregnancy

In addition to at-will employees being protected from discriminatory-based adverse employment actions, they also get protection from such actions based on refusing to violate the law or public policy. At-will employees are also protected from whistleblower retaliation, which is adverse employment actions taken because an employee reported illegal or unsafe activities perpetrated or sanctioned by the employer. At-will employees also may not suffer adverse employment actions because they filed for workers’ compensation benefits.

As you can see, there are a number of exceptions to the general rule stating that at-will employees can be terminated for almost any reason. If you have suffered wrongful termination as an at-will employee, your former employer may very well try to give non-discriminatory reasons for the termination or one that is not in violation of the law. The burden will then shift to you to uncover these reasons as mere pretexts for the true and illegal reason for the termination.

Employment Law Attorneys

If you have suffered wrongful termination, you need trusted legal representation by your side. The employment law team at Castronovo & McKinney will fight for you and your rights under the law. Contact us today.

About the Author
Tom McKinney is an experienced NJ Employment Lawyer in all major areas of labor and employment law, including discrimination, harassment, overtime violations, wage and hour claims, sexual harassment, wrongful discharge, Title VII, ADA, ADEA, FMLA, LAD, FLSA, and all other employment law claims. Tom is admitted to practice in the States of New Jersey and New York, United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Southern District of New York, District of New Jersey, and United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Prior to forming the firm, Tom practiced at Gibbons P.C. in Newark, NJ. If you have any questions regarding this article, contact Tom here today.