Paper Trails

What is at-will employment?

Navigating the employment landscape can sometimes feel like trying to find your way through a thick fog—especially when you hear the term “at-will employment.” You might be wondering, “What does this mean for me and my business? Can I really terminate employment at any time, for any reason? And what about my employees—how does this affect their sense of security and commitment?” These questions might swirl around your mind, mixing with concerns about fairness, compliance, and creating a positive workplace culture.

At Paper Trails, we’ve seen firsthand how these worries can weigh heavily on the shoulders of business owners. You’re not just running a business; you’re building a team, a family, where every decision can ripple through your small community. That’s why understanding “at-will employment” isn’t just a legal checkbox—it’s about navigating those foggy waters with confidence, knowing you’re making informed decisions that align with both the law and your company’s values.  By the time you finish reading, you should have a better understanding on how to navigate at-will employment. Let’s go.

What is at-will employment?

Do you think an employee is underperforming in their role? It is within your right to terminate them. Maybe an employee does not feel comfortable in a job they just started at a new company. It is within their right to leave on their own will. The at-will employment agreement allows this. At-will employment means that the employer or employee can end the relationship for almost any reason. This relationship can end with or without cause or reason.

Every state, except Montana, assumes the employment relationship is at-will unless there is a legal agreement in place that says otherwise. It is important to use clear language that establishes your business uses at-will employment in your company handbook.

What should employers know about at-will employment?

Keep in mind that terminations always carry a bit of risk because they can occur for almost any reason. There are illegal reasons, such as being discriminated against, that protect employees from termination. An employer cannot terminate an employee solely on their:

Additionally, employers must not terminate on the basis of retaliation or whistleblowing. It is important for business owners and HR managers to know these illegal reasons and not base their decisions solely on them.

How employers can protect themselves

There are a few important factors for employers to protect themselves. First, make sure your company handbook clearly defines that employment within your company is on an at-will basis. Secondly, make sure to have proper documentation when terminating an employee for any reason. Keep proper notes of previous performance reviews and disciplinary actions. If an employee tries to pursue legal action for wrongful termination, this documentation of the business reasons for termination will be key.

Finally, consistency is very important. For example, employee A and B have both received a verbal and written warning. Both employee A and employee B receive another written warning, but only employee A is terminated. In this case, employee A could seek legal action for discrimination against your business. Having a standard procedure for disciplinary action and terminations helps maintain consistency across your organization.


As we wrap up our journey through the ins and outs of at-will employment, it’s clear that navigating these waters doesn’t have to feel like steering through a storm without a compass. Understanding the nuances of at-will employment is crucial, not just for legal compliance but for fostering a work environment built on trust, respect, and mutual understanding. It’s about balancing the flexibility this concept offers with the responsibility you have towards your team’s well-being and your business’s ethos.

For more help with your business’ HR policies, contact our team here.