At-will employment means that you can get fired for any non-illegal reason. In short, it means either side — you or your employer — can likely end the relationship at any time.
This is different than having a contract that you work under. The contract may state the length of your employment and the reasons you could get fired. Most workers do not have contracts, though. They just accept the at-will position and know that they could theoretically lose their job at any time.
For example, you could show up late for work. Your boss may not like your attitude when he or she mentions that you should have gotten there sooner. They could just decide to fire you on the spot. It doesn’t have to be a major offense. They could even fire you without telling you why or giving you any warning.
It is fair?
Under at-will employment, you may feel that the firing is not fair. If they would have just told you how to improve, you could have done so. They never said anything and then fired you when you never knew anything was wrong.
That doesn’t matter. It may not feel fair to you. That’s simply what you accept when you take the job.
Is it illegal?
One major question to ask is whether or not the firing was illegal. As noted, you can only get fired for legal reasons — even if that means getting fired for no reason at all.
An illegal firing is one that breaks labor laws. For instance, if they fire you because of your race or your gender, that’s illegal. If you file a safety complaint and they fire you as a retaliation, that’s illegal. You have rights as an employee and there are plenty of protected classes. When they fire you for a protected reason — common examples are age, race, gender, ethnicity, skin color, national origin, disability, etc. — then that is illegal even under at-will employment.
One other thing to consider is whether or not they have company policies or if you signed a contract. If you signed one, they have to stand by it. If the company policies give you more rights — maybe you have to get three warnings before getting fired — then they have to abide by their own policies.
Did you get fired illegally?
So, do you think your employer fired you illegal, perhaps based on bias or discrimination? If so, be sure you are well aware of all of the legal rights you have and the steps you can take.