What is At-Will Employment?

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what-is-at-will-employmentAt-will employment refers to a set of laws governing how people may take on or leave a job. It is typically contrasted with the closed-shop system common to labor unions, in which all who are hired must become, or must at least pay dues to, a collective bargaining unit such as the United Auto Workers or the International Brotherhood of Electricians.

The National Council of State Legislatures notes at-will employment means employees can leave their jobs for any reason, at any time and employers can dismiss employees or change the terms of their employment for any legal reason (i.e., not because the employee is a member of a protected category) at any time – unless a specific contract is in place between employer and employee or another law (such as whistleblower laws or a National Guard service requirement) interacts with the job.


Working at will has some few advantages for employees. For example, the lack of structures enforcing rules of seniority means that employees who are more talented, if more junior, are more likely to be retained than those who are more senior but less diligent. But more advantages accrue to employers, who are able to keep wages low against the promise of joblessness, and who are able to encourage employees to do more without raises or other compensation against that same promise.


More often cited are the disadvantages an at-will situation has for employees. The most prominent of them is the utter lack of security an at-will employee has in his or her job. Because employers in at-will relationships can dismiss employees for even arbitrary and capricious reasons – even, as Liz Ryan notes, for such things as “being a Cubs fan, or for preferring Elvis to the Beatles or vice versa…. for being gay…. for being Republican or for being shorter than the boss would like his VP of Sales to be…for [a] Mississippi accent, or for saying ‘good morning’ in a way that bugs [the] manager.” Such a lack of certainty – for at-will employees cannot even be sure of continued employment even if they do their jobs to the best of their abilities, far in excess of expectations – creates an immensely stressful environment that does not stimulate the best attitudes on the parts of employees.

Employers, paradoxically, do not benefit from the environment in the long term. Increased stress on the job is linked to higher job turnover, which incurs training costs that may well run to more than it would take to retain good employees. In addition, Ryan asserts that the at-will environment has a chilling effect on possible good ideas; employees who fear for their jobs or see no prospects for advancement will not offer up their thoughts for fear of reprisal or the expectation of exploitation. Companies thus run the risk of the “echo chamber,” in which the only ideas floated are those already known – even if others are better – or of “brain drain,” in which employees use company resources to develop ideas that they then market independently. Neither benefits the business.

This is not to say there are not problems with other systems. As human constructions, there always will be difficulties to face in them. More seems to vitiate against at-will employment, however, than to argue for it.

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