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The Relationship Between At -Will Employment, and Employee Handbooks


California is an at-will employment state. That means that, absent violating federal or state discrimination laws, your employer can fire you for any reason. It does not have to be a good reason or a fair one. It can be subjective, with malice, or you can be fired “just because.”

Of course, it works the other way also—you are also free to leave your employment at any time, and for any reason, without any legal penalty.

When There is an Employment Contract

There is one situation where employment can go from at-will, to not being at-will. That’s when you have an actual employment contract that spells out the rights and obligations of the parties. Now, you as the employee do have a right to remain working at your employment, and you cannot be fired for just any reason, as doing so may violate your employment contract.

This is exactly why many jobs don’t provide employment contracts—by doing so, they potentially lose the right to just fire you whenever and for any reason.

Is the Handbook a Contract?

While employers often will not give you an employment contract, they will often give you an employee handbook. And that can create legal confusion, because the handbook often “looks” like a contract, saying what you can and cannot do at work, and avoiding reasons why you can and cannot be fired. That would mean that you are no longer an at-will employee.

However, most employee handbooks will say the handbook is not a contract, to avoid this problem.

In other words, many employers want to “have their cake and eat it too,” with a fully detailed handbook of rules and regulations that you are expected to follow—while also maintaining the employers right to get rid of you at any time.

Look at the Language

Is the handbook an actual employment contract? That will depend on the wording and the nature of each handbook.

Saying it “isn’t a contract” does not make it so; courts will look at the language of the handbook to see if it confers on an employee a definitive right to employment. Courts will look to see if anything in the handbook can be construed as a promise of employment, so long as the terms of the handbook are followed.

Any language that limits the employer’s right to fire you—or your ability to quit without penalty—will make it more likely the handbook is seen as a contract.

For example, some handbooks say that during an initial probation period, the employee cannot be fired. Or the handbook may say that the employee can be fired for doing one of a number of things, implying that the employee cannot be fired, if he does not do those things.

Some may have a process and procedure for being fired (like meetings or advanced warnings), which means that the employer cannot just fire you, without giving you those procedures.

Were you fired illegally? You may have legal recourse. Contact the San Jose employment lawyers at the Costanzo Law Firm today.


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