Introduction to At-Will Employment in Arizona

employment contract

The 50 states that comprise the United States can be divided into two categories when it comes to employment law: those states that are considered “at-will” employment states and those that are not. To be sure, the majority of states fall into the former category, including Arizona. This is not an unimportant distinction: Whether the state in which you are employed is considered “at-will” or not affects the rights and protections you have in the event your employer seeks to terminate your employment.

What At-Will Employment Really Means

In theory, “at will” employment means that either you or your employer can terminate your employment with the company for which you work at any time. If you are the employee, this means that you do not have to provide your employer with any type of notice or warning before quitting your job (although you may wish to do so as a matter of professional courtesy). You may quit your job for any number of reasons, or for no reason at all. Even if your employer were to ask for the reason you are quitting your job, you do not need to provide any reason to your employer.

In theory, “at will” employment also means that your employer can terminate you from your job for any reason and without any warning. Your employer could conceivably meet you at the door to your office, hand you a pink slip, and tell you to clean out your office. In practice, however, an employer simply cannot terminate an employee for any reason.

Worker Rights in At-Will Employment States

Even in a state like Arizona that has declared itself to be an “at will” employment state, employers’ hands remain slightly tied when it comes to terminating workers. Although employers still do not have to provide any warning or advance notice to workers prior to terminating their employment, employers may not:

  • Terminate an employee where there is an “implied contract.” For example, if the employee handbook states that employees will not be terminated except for just cause, then an employer may not terminate an employee without just cause. In other words, before an employer terminates an employee in this situation the employer must provide the employee with the reason for the termination (and the reason must be something like a violation of company rules or a criminal offense) or else the termination may be considered wrongful.
  • Terminate an employee in violation of public policy. Even in at-will states, an employer may not terminate an employee on the basis of any protected classification (religion, age, sex, etc.). Moreover, the prohibition against terminating an employee in violation of public policy would protect employees from being terminated for bringing unsafe or criminal activity to the attention of the proper authorities, supporting a particular political cause or candidate in the employee’s free time, or engaging in other socially beneficial activities.

What Happens When a Worker is Terminated for an Illegal Reason?

at-will employment

A worker who has been fired for an unlawful reason may have the ability to bring a wrongful termination lawsuit against the employer to recover damages. Before he or she can do this, however, a complaint must be timely filed with the Arizona Attorney General’s office and/or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (depending on whether the employee believes his or her state or federal rights were violated). Once these entities have finished their investigation and have not been able to resolve the dispute satisfactorily, then the employee will be given the ability to file a wrongful termination lawsuit in court. A successful suit may result in lost wages being awarded, reinstatement to the worker’s previous position, and/or other damages and compensation.  Find out more about whether Arizona is an at-will employment state by contacting the experienced attorneys at Nathan M. Smith & Associates, PLLC.