For many young people just starting their careers, the discovery that their employer can terminate them at any time for almost any reason -- or even for no reason at all -- often comes as a surprise. Unless you live in Montana or have a specific contract for an agreed-upon duration of employment, your job may not be as secure as you think.
All states except Montana have laws in place that make at-will employment a presumption unless there is an express written or oral agreement stating otherwise. This leaves the door open for employers to terminate employees, change work schedules, add or remove benefits or adjust compensation levels when and as they see fit. It also means that employees can leave their jobs whenever they want without the fear any legal consequences. Many employers give some type of severance pay and notice to terminated employees, and it is common for employees to give their employers at least two weeks notice before leaving the job, but these are a courtesy only and are not mandated by law.
Although the at-will employment presumptions are automatic in the eyes of the law, many employers ask new employees to sign a document stipulating that they are taking the job on at at-will basis. If you have a written or oral agreement with the employer stating that your employment will last for a specific period of time as long as you do your job correctly, you might want to think twice about signing any at-will agreement, as there is a good chance that the courts will give the at-will document precedent over any other employment contract. If you do have any oral agreements with a prospective employer, it is best to get them put in writing before you start the job.
Despite the at-will employment statutes, there are some things employers may not use as reasons to terminate employees. When an employee refuses to perform an illegal act for his employer or engages in whistle blowing, which is the act of reporting an employer’s illegal activities, the employer may not terminate the employee for his actions. Employers may also not fire employees simply because they may file a worker’s compensation claim or for reasons that are deemed by law to be discriminatory, including age, gender, religion, race or sexual preference.
Montana employers operate under a very different statute. The state passed the Wrongful Discharge From Employment Act into law in 1987. This statute allows employees to pursue legal action or arbitration if an employer terminates them without good cause after a specified period of probationary employment has passed. Damages are limited to four years of salary, including the value of any fringe benefits, and may be subject to interest. (see Ref 2 - IV and IV A)
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