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What Does At-Will Employment Mean?

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Paul R. Bedard, EsquirePaul R. Bedard, Esquire

Employment litigation continues to represent one of the most complicated and significant facets of legal exposure for health clubs. Some employers mistakenly assume that hiring employees "at-will" equates to a blanket authority to dismiss these employees at any time, regardless of the motive or rationale behind the decision, without potential liability. Although the authority to terminate an at-will employee is somewhat broad, it is not absolute. Statutory protections, common law exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine and tort causes of action limit this authority.

This article is intended to briefly summarize the concept of at-will employment and various key exceptions and related considerations. It is not intended as legal advice. Widely varying laws specific to each jurisdiction prohibit one-size-fits-all recommendations within this particularly complicated area of law. Please consider these comments as an educational guide to assist you when you consult your own attorney for specific direction.

General Concept of At-Will Employment

Most health club employees are at-will employees. In a nutshell, an at-will employee can be fired for effectively any reason, or no reason at all. And, the employee can just as freely quit at any time. However, regardless of whether employed by contract or at-will, all employees are statutorily protected from illegal discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin, age, disability, religion, and in some states, sexual orientation and gender identity. Most employers are very much aware of the statutory protections that apply within every employment relationship.

Yet, aside from the statutory prohibition against employment discrimination, common law exceptions to what it means to be "at-will" may also apply. The three major common law exceptions are the public-policy exception, the implied-contract exception and the covenant-of-good-faith exception. In some states, all three of these exceptions apply. In other states, only one or two of these are applicable. And, certain states recognize none of these exceptions. Given this varying applicability, it is critical that employers are educated as it relates to their state's specific laws.

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