Employee at Will

Understanding the “Employee At Will” Doctrine

When people are fired from their jobs, they often believe that they were wrongfully terminated. As employment attorneys, we often get calls from people who want to take legal action against their former employer for wrongful termination. Many times, a termination is a result of a personality conflict between the employee and his or her supervisor. Other times, the termination is a result of what the employee feels was an undeserved poor performance review. While being terminated for such reasons can be extremely difficult for an employee to accept, it is not necessarily the basis of a legal claim for wrongful discharge.

We often have to explain to people that Illinois is an “Employee At Will” state, meaning that an employee serves his employer at the employer’s “will.” What this means legally, is that absent a contract guaranteeing employment for a specific period of time, an employee may be terminated by his employer at any time with or without cause. Therefore, an employer can fire an employee without any reason at all. Similarly, an employee may choose to quit his or her job without reason.

It is understandable that many people are confused as to how the “Employee At Will” doctrine works in conjunction with the many federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination with regard to hiring, firing or terms and conditions of employment. Title VII as well as numerous state laws prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees on the basis of protected classes such as age (over 40), race, gender, or disability. Therefore, while under the “Employee At Will” doctrine an employer can terminate an employee for any reason, the exception is that an employer may not legally terminate an employee for a discriminatory reason. Discrimination is often proved by showing that a particular employee, who is part of a protected class, was treated differently than other similarly situated employees. It is the employee’s burden to show that he or she was terminated with discriminatory intent. The employer typically will defend its decision to terminate the employee by showing that there was legitimate reason for the termination. Often the employer will claim that the termination was due to either a reduction in force or a documented performance problem with the employee.

While the majority of employment terminations are not legally actionable, it is always wise if you suspect that you have been discriminated against to seek the advice of an experienced employment lawyer. Cotler Law LLC counsels both individuals as well employers (management) regarding legal rights related to employment termination.