What Does “At-Will” Employment Mean in California?

Is California an At Will employment State

According to California law, “at-will” employment in the state of California defines a working relationship with an employee that can be terminated for any reason by their employer.

This can happen without any type of warning from the employer in the state of California.

An employee under the “at-will” employment status in California also reserves the right to cease work, strike, or quit their job for any reason and without warning.

However, there are still some restrictions.

There are certain conditions that might seem an employer is exercising their “at-will” right to terminate your employment, but you could also be the victim of wrongful termination.

If you have questions about termination laws to determine how your situation can impact you, a lawyer experienced in workplace rights can help.

Workplace Rights Law Group has extensive experience in helping clients with employment cases. We specialize in employment law and know how the court systems work in California. Contact us for a free consultation.

Exceptions to “At-Will” Employment in California

What is true is that if you’re an “at-will” employee, and you’re fired, you can’t sue your employer if your only claim is that your termination wasn’t fair or they didn’t have cause to fire you.

However, there are certain exceptions for “at-will” employees in the state of California.

Public Policy

An employer may not terminate at-will employment in California if the termination goes against longstanding public policy. Something that goes against public policy pertains to anything that injures the public. 

For example, it would go against public policy to terminate the California at-will employment based on an individual’s inclusion in a protected class. Protected classes include categories based on race, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, or age. 

Another example includes firing an employee for reporting unsafe work conditions or criminal activities. Additionally, firing an individual for refusing to engage in illegal activity would also go against public policy. 

Employment Contract

An employee who enters an employment contract with their employer may be protected from termination. In that case, the terms of the contract will govern whether the termination is wrongful. Employment contracts typically outline specific circumstances where an employee may be terminated and specific procedures the employer must follow.

Under California law, all employment contracts include an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The covenant provides that no adverse actions, such as a demotion or termination, may be made against an employee in bad faith. Breach of this covenant may give cause for an employee to file suit for wrongful termination even if they are otherwise an at-will employee.

Implied Contract

Even if an employee does not have an employment contract, an exception to California at-will employment law may apply if an implied contract exists. 

An implied contract may be found in situations where, based on representations made by the employer, the employee believes that an employment relationship exists.

Evidence of an implied contract includes actions and statements of the employer to the employee. These can include representations in the company handbook or employment policies. Such representations may lead an employee to believe they enjoy protection from termination. 

Additional Exceptions to California At Will Employment 

Additional exceptions exist to California at will employment, including the following:

  • Public sector employees hold protections based on civil service laws or by a “memorandum of understanding” between their unions and employers. These memorandums provide procedures for discipline and termination of employment. 
  • Union workers enjoy protection through their collective bargaining units requiring a “just cause” for termination of employment.
  • Contracts providing for “good cause” for termination protect certain individuals from California at-will employment laws.

Understanding the complexity of exceptions to California at will employment law requires the assistance of a qualified employment attorney. Whether an exception exists requires careful analysis of your employment relationship and history. 

When is a Termination of a California At-Will Employee Considered Unlawful?

Just because you are considered an at-will employee in California does not mean you cannot still be subject to wrongful termination.

Additionally, “at-will” employees in California are protected under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

For example, “at-will” employees can’t be fired for protected characteristics that include:

In addition, employees cannot be fired for their political views, exercising their rights to take sick days, taking a protected leave of absence, or to keep certain benefits from vesting.

Nor can “at-will” employees be fired or forced out for reasons that violate other fundamental “public policies,” or in retaliation for speaking out about something unlawful they thought might be occurring in the workplace.

So, while California is an “at-will” employment state, that doesn’t mean your employer can wrongfully fire you.

Contact an Experienced Los Angeles Employment Lawyer

If you’ve been given a reason for being fired or forced out for a reason that doesn’t ring true to you, you should explore your legal options.

Call (818) 844-5200 or contact the employment attorneys at Workplace Rights Law Group to schedule a consultation today.

FAQ Section

Can you be fired for no reason in California?

California is considered an “at-will” state. California law states that an “at-will” employment in the state of California defines a working relationship with an employee and can be terminated by the employer at any time.

What are some California at-will employment exceptions?

Some exceptions include certain employees protected by civil service laws, employees that are in an executive status and have a current contract where being fired has to be for good cause, and employees that are part of a union.

Is there a notice period under the California “at-will” employment law?

While yes, “at-will” employment can happen without any type of warning, you could also be the victim of wrongful termination. If you’ve been given a reason for being fired or forced out that doesn’t ring true to you, explore your legal options.


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