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Understanding at-will employment in California

Like many other states, California is an at-will employment state. At-will employment means that employers are able to fire employees for any reason at any time. There are limitations to this employer right, however.

One exception to the at-will employment rule occurs when an employer signs an employment contract with the employee if the contract outlines the reasons that can lead to termination as well as the steps the employer must take before firing the employee. Employees who are not working under contracts and who are subject to at-will laws have very few protections. This means an employer may arbitrarily fire them simply because the employer is having a bad day or for almost any other reason.

In some cases, employees have been successful in suing because they were terminated when the employer told them, via a handbook or verbally, that they could only be fired for good cause. This includes statements that are made in lighthearted moments. However, if the employer has communicated that an employee's job is at-will, either during the hiring process or afterward, the employee's rights will be greatly limited if he or she is later terminated.

Even though California is an at-will employment state, there are still certain circumstances that might occur causing a termination to be a wrongful dismissal. For instance, employers are forbidden from taking negative employment actions against employees when they are based on the person's protected class or perceived membership in a protected class. Terminations may also be wrongful if they are done in retaliation for making reports regarding illegal behavior on the part of the employers. People who believe that they have been a victim of such an act may want to talk with an employment law attorney in order to learn what recourse they might have.

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