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What is “at-will” employment?

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Missouri, like every state other than Montana, is an at-will employment state. This doesn’t mean that every employer is an at-will employer or that every employee that works in Missouri is an at-will employee. Instead, this simply means the default or baseline status of employment in Missouri is at-will. Employers can alter this arrangement, but the vast majority of Missouri employees work under at-will employment contracts. 

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So, what is at-will employment?

At-will employment simply means that either the employer or employee may terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason. In fact, as Missouri courts have repeatedly stated, the employment can be ended for “any reason or no reason, for cause or just because.” This is in contrast to employment contracts that limit termination to reasons constituting “just cause” or impose penalties for termination of a contract before a set date. This type of arrangement is very common for bargaining unit position that are represented by a union.


 So, does this mean that an at-will employee can never have a wrongful termination claim? Certainly not. There is one small but very important caveat to at-will employment: the employer is free to terminate the employee for a good reason, bad reason, or no reason, but not for an illegal reason. When an employer terminates an employee for an illegal reason, the employee will almost always have a claim for monetary damages against the employer. The employer may also be subject to criminal prosecutions by the state of federal government. 

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What makes some terminates illegal and why?

Both federal and state laws define impermissible reasons for terminating an employee that can give rise to wrongful termination claims. What may be surprising is that most of these reasons don’t have anything to do with not punishing good employees. For example, an employer could ask an employee to make a list of how supervisors could work more efficiently. The employee could then do just that, offering good and constructive criticism just as requested. The employer is then free to fire that employee for doing exactly what he was asked to do. In fact, the employer would be firing the employee for doing a good job at work. This is terrible, reprehensible, and bad business—but it’s not illegal. The law treats this as a self-correcting wrong: the employer is making a poor business choice that will scare off good employees, and thus, the employer is only hurting itself. 


By contrast, must illegal reason for terminating an employee place the state or public at large in danger. For example, Missouri prohibits an employer from firing an employee that reports illegal activities of an employer or refuses to perform an illegal act ordered by his or her employer. Missouri has an interest in protecting these employees and prohibiting these firings because doing so furthers the state’s interest in seeing that its laws are followed. 

What are the illegal reasons to terminate an at-will employee?

Perhaps the most commonly known illegal reason to terminate at-will employees arises from both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—a federal law—and the Missouri Human Rights Act—a very similar state law. These laws prohibit discrimination, including termination for employment, based on race, gender, religion, and national origin. The Missouri Human rights Act also overlaps with two other well-known pieces of federal legislation: prohibiting age discrimination (as does the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA) and disability discrimination (as does the Americans with Disability Act, or ADA). 


 Missouri law also recognizes other, unique illegal reasons for firing an employee. These include whistleblowing—reporting illegal activities to a supervisor or to government authorities—and the “public policy” exceptions. As recognized in Fleshner v. Pepose Vision Institute, an employer cannot fire an employee for doing something that is strongly supported by public policy or fire an employee that refuses to do something that is against public policy. The best example of this is serving on a jury. An employer is not allowed to fire an employee that does her civic duty by responding to a jury summons. Missouri law also directly prohibits an employer from firing an employee for getting hurt at work or exercising rights granted by the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Law. 

  

Even if you are an at-will employee, your employer is not free to fire you for an illegal reason. It can be extremely difficult to determine why an employer has fired you, particularly because employers will often be savvy enough to offer a false, non-illegal reason for your termination. If you think you may have been wrongfully terminated, we would love to hear your story and see if we can help!

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