At will employment limits the rights of employees. But it does not foreclose all rights. Just because you are an at will employee does not mean that your employer is totally free to terminate you for any reason at all.
Most states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, follow the so-called “employment at will” doctrine. This means that in the absence of a contract (either through a union or otherwise), an employee may be fired for any reason or no reason at all. Employment at will essentially means that employees are afforded very few protections against termination. Employers can, and often do, take actions which are unfair or arbitrary. They terminate employees for stupid reasons, or for reasons that have little or nothing to do with an employee’s value or job performance. Employment at will is clearly not in an employee’s best interest. In fact, at-will employment may not even be in an employer’s best interest.
Although the doctrine allows employers to terminate for unfair reasons, employment at will does not mean that employees are without any rights. There are two major exceptions to the employment at will doctrine. First, an employer cannot terminate you because you possess a certain protected trait or characteristic. That is unlawful discrimination. Second, an employer cannot terminate you because you engaged in protected conduct. That is unlawful retaliation. Each of these exceptions is created and governed by state and federal statutory law.
State and federal law prohibit discrimination on the basis of a number of protected characteristics including race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and age. Regardless of your status as an at will employee, you cannot be terminated based on one of those characteristics. In addition, the law provides employers with certain rights and employers may not interfere with those rights, including by terminating an employee who exercises them. Complaining about wages owed or workplace safety issues, seeking leave under state or federal leave laws, or refusing to engage in illegal conduct on behalf of an employer are all protected actions for which you may not be terminated.
Proving discrimination or retaliation is difficult. Employers will always point to non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons for a termination. And evidence of unlawful motives is often lacking. Employers generally know enough than to admit that they are firing you because of your gender or race or because you complained about unlawful wage practices.
As such, evidence of discrimination will often take two forms: (1) the termination occurs soon after the protected conduct or development of the protected characteristic; and (2) the employer treated similarly situated people differently. For example, if you seek medical leave and are terminated two days later, that is suggestive of an unlawful termination. But even more persuasive evidence is when the discriminated or retaliated-against employee performs as well as other employees but was the only one terminated. If you are a member of a suspect class, being treated worse than others while performing just as well leaves little doubt that you are being singled out for unlawful reasons.
While at will employment means limited protections for employees, it does not mean no protections at all. Regardless of whether you are at will or not, an employer may not discriminate or retaliate against you based on protected characteristics or conduct. Enright Law represents employees who have been wrongfully terminated based on discrimination or retaliation. Contact Enright Law to discuss your termination and your possible courses of action.