What is Right-to-Work vs. At-Will Employment?


Kimberly Dawn Neumann

When it comes to your job, can you just quit when you want without repercussions? You may be able to if you’re under an at-will state, depending on if it’s also a right-to-work state. As such, it’s important to learn the difference between right-to-work vs. at-will employment so you know your rights as well.

Not sure of the difference? Don’t worry, many employees and even employers often confuse these two employment law terms. Though they both cover employer/employee work agreements and there’s some connection between the terms, they’re not the same.

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What is At-Will Employment?

At-will employment allows both employers and employees the right to sever their working relationship at any time.

This implies that employers are free to fire employees anytime, anywhere, with or without notice, for virtually any reason. They’re also allowed to:

  • Raise or lower wages
  • Add or rescind benefits
  • Change general conditions of employment.

And again, they may do so without informing an at-will employee in advance. Employers can do all of this if acting under good faith and fair dealing. For example, they cannot suddenly lower your wages to avoid paying you a full salary.

“To act in good faith and deal fairly, a party must act in a way that is honest and faithful to the agreed purposes of the contract and consistent with the reasonable expectations of the parties.”-CHARGE 4.10J

On the flip side, however, that also means employees can quit without giving notice if they don’t like the terms. So, while at-will employment may seem to favor employers, in reality employees also benefit from this common law provision.

Currently every state except Montana works under an at-will employment unless specified otherwise in a separate contract. Montana law states that once an employee completes a set probationary period, their employer must have good cause for termination.

For everywhere else, at-will employment laws don’t require an employer to give a business purpose for firing an employee.

However, there are exceptions in all 50 states thanks to federal and state laws that protect employees from discriminatory adverse actions.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

At-will employment only holds when it doesn’t infringe upon an employee’s legal rights, characteristics, and values.

In other words, an employer cannot terminate an employee for an “illegal” reason. That means they cannot fire someone based on discrimination against:

  • Sex
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Marital status
  • National origin

Employers must also not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Furthermore, an employee cannot be let go for refusing to participate in harassment or anything that is a safety violation. These are both examples of wrongful termination that aren’t protected under at-will employment.

Finally, at-will employment assumes that there’s no written employment agreement between a worker and their employer that supersedes these laws.

How to Define Right-to-Work Employment

​​Right-to-work laws prevent employees from requiring to join or pay labor union dues. It doesn’t alter the at-will relationship between employer and employee.

That’s because right-to-work laws aren’t between the employer and employee at all. Rather, they’re about employee participation in labor unions.

In essence, “right-to-work” refers to an employee’s ability to work for an employer without joining a union or paying representation fees.

Currently 26 states and Guam operate under right-to-work laws. These laws allow workers to accept employment offers without having to join a union or collective bargaining unit.

Federal Right-to-Work Laws

Regardless of what state’s decide, federal law already makes it illegal to force someone to join a union.

Thanks to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employees have the right to create labor unions without fear of retaliation. This law ensures employees can band together to negotiate better employment conditions. It also mandates that employers must engage in collective bargaining with such organized groups.

At the same time, the NLRA ensures that any worker could abstain from union activity if they choose. This includes labor organizing and union representation.

Initially, however, the NLRA made union membership a requirement for all employees. However, this was restrictive for anyone who was not a union member trying to find work. In response, Congress made amendments to the NLRA by passing the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, effectively creating today’s right-to-work laws.

The Taft-Hartley Act allows states to prohibit compulsory membership in a union as a condition for employment. This is true in both public and private business sectors.

Right-to-Work vs. At-Will Employment Law

It is possible for right-to-work and at-will employment laws to coexist. But does one alter the other? The answer is it depends.

Basically, right-to-work comes into play during the hiring phase when an employee may choose to join a union. At-will employment, however, is a legal concept that determines a company’s or employee’s actions at termination.

Unions typically present tougher rules for why an employee might lose their job. As a result, an employee in an at-will state might choose to join to protect themselves from an at-will firing. In that case, the at-will provision now includes more restrictive parameters because the employer must follow the union rules.

Remember at-will employment is the default but only if there are no other binding contracts in place. If employees and employers agree upon terms through signed contracts during the hiring process, then the at-will part changes. An example of this would be including a two-week notice clause.

Either way, an employer doesn’t have the right to fire you over your union status. But if you’re not in a union or don’t have a contract stating otherwise, at-will laws will be in effect.

Protect Your Right With an Employment Attorney

Regardless of whether you’re in a right-to-work vs. at-will state, you have workers’ rights.

If you feel you have been wrongfully terminated, consider discussing the matter with an experienced employment attorney. We can connect you with a lawyer who will help you understand the laws in your area.

While “right-to-work” and “at-will” are not interchangeable, neither term means you must accept unfair treatment at your place of employment.

Kimberly Dawn Neumann

Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a multi-published NYC-based magazine and book writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications ranging from Forbes to Cosmopolitan. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, College of Journalism. For more, visit: www.KDNeumann.com, Instagram @dancerscribe, and Twitter @KimberlyNeumann