What does it really mean to be an “at will” employee in Texas? You’ve certainly heard of this term often. In the next few paragraphs, I will talk about what that term really means in the eyes of the law and how it impacts you, and I’ll also discuss the exceptions to at will employment.
The first thing you should know is that Texas is an “at will” employment state. At will employment simply means that your employer can fire you at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. That actually includes false, malicious, unfair, or unethical reasons, as long as those reasons aren’t illegal, or in violation of a contract (we’ll discuss below). At the same time, it also means that you, the employee, can quit your job at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. But what if your employer required you to give two weeks’ notice before you quit; does that mean you’re not an at will employee? In general, if your employer requires two weeks’ notice before you quit but reserves the right to fire you without notice, then your employment is likely still at will. This means if you quit without notice, you may be violating your employer’s policy, but not any law or contract.
In short, at will employment is the “default rule” in Texas. But every rule has exceptions. At will employment can be modified by two different means: by contract or by law. Let’s talk about each of these separately.
First, you and your employer are free to change the employment status at any time. Parties to a contract are free to enter into any kind of agreements not prohibited by law. Here are a few examples of contracts that alter the at will employment relationship:
- – A contract for a certain period of time with a specific end date.
- – A contract that requires notice before the termination and resignation.
- – A contract that allows the employer to terminate the employee only “for cause.”
Keep in mind that the contract, in many cases, doesn’t need to be in writing to be enforceable. However, if the contract is for a period longer than one year then it must be in writing.
What if you don’t have a contract that modifies your at will employment status; does that mean your employer can truly fire you for “any reason”? Here is where the law creates exceptions to the default rule. There are many federal and state laws that create exceptions to at will employment. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for an employer to terminate an employee because of the employee’s race, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, religion, or national origin. Other laws protect from discrimination based on age or disability, and from retaliation based on various categories of whistleblowing.
An employment lawyer’s job at the initial client consultation is to listen carefully to the employee’s case and ask questions to determine if the case falls under any of these contractual or legal exceptions. Keep in mind that in the vast majority of cases, your employer will almost always give you a reason for the termination that is, on its face, legitimate. What really matters is the actual motive behind the termination. If the motive falls under any of the exceptions to at will employment, the termination is illegal. If it doesn’t, the termination likely doesn’t violate the law. Below are a couple of examples:
- – Example 1: Your boss fires you for alleged tardiness, but you can definitively prove that you were never late. You believe your boss actually fired you because he was threatened by your intelligence and leadership skills, and that you may someday replace him. Assuming you don’t have a contract that requires “for cause” termination, even though the stated reason, tardiness, is false, the termination is still not illegal. At will employment applies because there is simply no law out there that makes your boss’ hidden motive behind the termination illegal.
- – Example 2: Same example as above. Your boss fires you for alleged tardiness. But two days prior, you complained to your boss about not receiving the minimum wage and believe that is why your boss is terminating you. This termination is no longer subject to at will employment because there is a federal law that makes it illegal for an employer to fire an employee for complaining of wage & hour violations.
In summary, even though at will employment is very broad, there are many exceptions to it. You should consult with an experienced employment attorney that can analyze your case and tell you if your legal (or contractual) rights were violated.