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Employment At Will in California

At Will Employment. California is an “at-will” employment state. What does this mean? In most cases, it means that your boss can fire you at any time for almost any reason or no reason at all. She can fire you because she

  1. doesn’t like you
  2. thinks you’re too tall or short
  3. thinks you talk too much or too little
  4. is upset you didn’t say “Good Morning” to her in the right way
  5. is mad you made the coffee too strong and forgot the cream
  6. dislikes your shirt
  7. thinks you’re too fat or thin
  8. thinks you’re too ugly or good-looking
  9. mistakenly thinks you did something that you didn’t
  10. is in a bad mood and you happen to be the closest one to her
  11. and on and on.

But take heart. There are a lot of restrictions on your boss’s power to fire you at will. As the California Supreme Court said in a landmark decision, “”Even where employment is at will, numerous federal and state statutes already impose express limitations on the right of an employer to discharge at will.” [Foley v. Interactive Data Corp., 47 Cal.3d 654, 665, fn. 4.]

Contract. If you and your employer signed a contract regarding your employment, you should examine it carefully. Look for a paragraph called “Termination” which should spell out your boss’s right to fire you. With luck, your contract might say that your boss can only fire you “for cause” (a good reason).

Employee Handbook/Policies. If your employer has employee handbooks, manuals or policies, you should examine it carefully. Courts have held that these documents are to be treated as contracts between you and your employer. Look for a section called “Termination” and see what your rights are.

Union Agreements. If you’re in a union, they may have entered into a collective bargaining agreement with your employer that lays out the circumstances under which your boss can fire you. That agreement may be binding on your boss.

Illegal Reasons. Your boss cannot fire you (or force you to resign) for illegal reasons. Following is just a partial list of illegal reasons:

  1. in harassment based on or discrimination against your “race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, marital status, sex, age, or sexual orientation” [California Fair Employment & Housing Act; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]
  2. in retaliation for your blowing the whistle on illegal or improper conduct [California Labor Code 1102.5; California Health & Safety Code 1278.5; etc.]
  3. in retaliation for your taking family medical leave [California Family Rights Act; U.S. Family Medical Leave Act]
  4. in retaliation for your applying for workers’ compensation for a work-related injury [California Labor Code 132a]
  5. in retaliation for your union activity or participating in union investigations [National Labor Relations Act]
  6. for participating in an investigation for discrimination or harassment [California Fair Employment & Housing Act; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]
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