Understanding California’s “At-Will” Employment Law

Understanding California’s “At-Will” Employment Law

In every state, there are unique laws regarding employment and employee termination. California is one of several states that follows an “at-will” employment law. Understanding the nuances of and exceptions to this law is important for both employers and employees to understand, and in this article, we will explore the intricacies of it.

What is “At-Will” Employment?

First, it is important to establish what exactly it means to be “at-will.” As spelled out in California Labor Code 2922, “at-will” employment means that both the employer and employee have the right to end the employment relationship at their own will. This means that either an employer or employee can terminate the working relationship at any point in time.

However, this does not mean that an employer can fire an employee for no reason, as this brings into question the employer’s motives, biases, and potential for discrimination. Additionally, advanced notice of this termination is not required by law. Overall, this employment system provides a great amount of flexibility for both the employer and the employee.

Exceptions to the Law

There are a few exceptions to the law that one should be aware of in the state of California that may impact your “at-will” employment. These include:

  • Public policy: The first exception is that you cannot be fired for reasons that violate public policy. For example, if your employer requests that you perform an act that is in violation of state law and you refuse to do so because you know that it is illegal, you will be protected from being fired at will due to this exception.
  • Implied contract: Another exception to the “at-will” employment law is if an implied contract exists. This means that if there is an employment contract that is not explicitly written down but is implied in an employee handbook or company policy, you may be able to argue that you should have been protected from termination under what is spelled out in the implied contract.
  • Covenant of good faith and fair dealing: Another exception to California’s law is known as the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. While this exception is not as commonly seen, this covenant is a presumption that an employer will not terminate an employee in bad faith, arbitrarily, or maliciously. Failure to uphold this promise may result in a wrongful termination.

Discrimination is Disallowed 

Perhaps one of the most widely discussed exceptions to California’s “at-will” law is discrimination. Just because you are an “at-will” employee does not mean you can be fired for an unlawful or discriminatory reason. Several types of employment discrimination are prohibited by the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), including:  

  • Age
  • Race
  • Disability
  • Marital status
  • Religion
  • Ethnicity
  • Political beliefs
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy
  • Medical condition

If an employer fires you due to any of the aforementioned characteristics, this may be considered wrongful termination under California and federal law. Reach out to an Orange County wrongful termination attorney as soon as possible if you believe that you have been unlawfully discharged from your job. You may be able to recover compensation by filing a wrongful termination claim.  


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