Most people who sign typical employment contracts agree to "at-will" employment without ever questioning the term. It is only when they face termination that they begin to ask, "What does at-will employment mean?" and "Am I being fired illegally?"
At-will employment in a nutshell
When you have an at-will policy, it simply means that you could be terminated at any time and for almost any reason. Is there a personality conflict between you and your boss? She can fire you. Did your supervisor find someone he liked better for the job? He can fire you and hire his friend.
This type of employment does not mean, however, that you can be fired for reasons related to discrimination or retaliation. You cannot be fired on the basis of a protected class - such as race, age, national origin, sex, religion, disability status, marital status or religion. Likewise, your employer cannot fire you for bringing a lawsuit against your employer or reporting it's unlawful activity.
The benefits of at-will employment
There are some benefits to at-will employment. One major benefit is the fact that you aren't bound by a contract. If after a period of time you decide you don't like your job or you receive a better offer elsewhere, you simply have to give a notice and begin your new opportunity.
The disadvantages of at-will employment
The main disadvantage of working for a company with an at-will policy is obvious: You can be fired at any time for almost any reason, no matter how perfect you are for the job. Other employment contracts have clauses that state the possible reasons for termination. An at-will contract leaves it open to the employer's judgment.
Furthermore, it can be more difficult to prove you were fired for a discriminatory reason when your employer has an at-will policy. Yet, this is a disadvantage that we are hesitant to write. You should never assume that your at-will employment precludes you from bringing a discrimination or retaliation charge against your employer.
If your employer fired you on account of your race, sex, age or other protected class, because you reported a safety violation or for another illegal reason, it can and should be held accountable for its actions. Talk with a lawyer to learn more.