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Are you an at-will employee? Why does the distinction matter?

In an at-will employment relationship, you can be fired at any time for almost any reason (with several exceptions we discuss in this post). On the other hand, you can also quit when you want without having to give notice in most situations.

Both Michigan and Ohio are at-will employment states. That means in the absence of a specific employment contract that you signed prior to starting or on the first day of your employment, you are probably an at-will employee.


Employment contract review

For executives and other professionals such as professors or physicians, employment contracts are common to clarify confidentiality or noncompete terms. These may include a specific term (two or four years) or outline necessary steps to follow at the time of resignation.

A contract may list reasons that would support termination of the employment relationship. When things do not work out as envisioned in the employment contract, it may be possible to file a suit against your former employer for breach of contract. This is where seeking legal advice and contract review is often crucial.

Oral promises and written policies

An employer may offer assurances during training that you’ll have a job as long as you meet performance standards. Later, they may fire you even though you met performance metrics without giving a reason. Reliance on oral promises can sometimes override general at-will policies.

Employment manuals and company employment policies will sometimes also contain protections. A provision might require good cause prior to terminating an employee. You can rely on these policies and ask for a reason for the termination.

Unlawful discrimination and retaliation

Even with at-will employment, you cannot be fired because of certain protected characteristics such as race, religion, age or gender. If your employer seems to be forcing you out because you are getting too old, this might be a violation of your rights. Similarly, if you were fired after asking for time off to care for a newborn or requesting breaks to coincide with afternoon prayers, this might be unlawful discrimination.

In addition, your employer cannot fire you in retaliation for complaining about safety or health violations, discrimination or harassment at the workplace.

Whether you work in an at-will employment relationship or under an employment contract, you have rights. If terminated or offered a severance, ask questions and find out what remedies might exist.

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