Legal news and tips for employees

Can My Boss Fire Me at Any Time for Any Reason? What is “at will”?

Can My Boss Fire Me“At-Will”. 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]

If you think any of the above applies to your situation, talk to a lawyer right away.

  • Woodrowe Bonner

    JUST WANT REASPECT!! ): I’m a manager at McDonalds names woody. me and my supervisor don’t really get along we see each other we do a natural greeting then hell not say anything or come up to me and tell me how many complaints I got an if I don’t know the policy don’t say its “our policy”…another time a customer complaint had with a special promotion ..i was about to tell him after the fact. An he stopped me an said ” let’s be honest” like im about to or already lied??.mind u I’m not rude to the customer an am professional. Today 121914 one of my “skims ” money taken from drawer. I put and dropped in safe the said it was missing. my supervisor looked at cameras and told my store manager i was in a blind spot an told him to suspend me for 3 days even though I’m not proven guilty of anything. My store manager said it was unfair and said hell do one day suspension. Supervisor comes to the store rarly and gives me negative energy an feedback about my work ethic?… An today I got tipped 100$. Like I said I’m professional. Please advice!

    And the person they want me to talk to about the matter..turns out to be my supervisor wife….
    Is this considered as verbal abuse and harrassement?

  • anon

    my boss makes me tip out his immediate family members (brother, wife, etc) to compensate them for working. they are not paid hourly, but paid out of my tips. is this legal to me or them?

    • Niosso

      The minimum wage for all tip earning employees is $2.75 per each hour worked. Tips may be distributed to multiple employees however all tips shared must either be earned by all employees collectively or the distribution must be agreed upon by all parties involved

  • Miriam Balingit

    My boss brought my previous manager to be my new manager in this Hotel ,They told me while I was working to stopped what I was doing because I don’t have job no more.because this manager will take over the Hotel and I need to move out,Its legal to terminate me?

  • Kate

    Hi my boss made us sign the employee had book but refuses to give us a copy. Is this legal?

    • Eugene Lee

      If you ask, she or he must give you a copy of all documents you have signed within 30 days. Otherwise, there is a $750 penalty. See Labor code section 1198.5.

  • tired of it

    My employer questions me and speaks to me as one would speak to a teenager. Truth be told he speaks that way to everyone. I’m a commission sales person, relatively successful so I’m not worried about being fired however, I usually ignore the fact that he is patronizing and condescending but the other day I lost it and let my sarcastic nature loose in an email addressed to him. While I realize it was perhaps unprofessional I just don’t care anymore. I’m tired of the owners of graphics houses being borderline abusive with their employees especially the women because they are “owners” or “CEO’s”. What are my rights as a sales person?

  • Bugbg

    My employer does not provide the same vacation time or sick time to all employees, some like my self only get a total of 40 hours a year combined sick and vacation, where others get 3 weeks sick time and 3 weeks vacation time and they were hired after me. According to the company handbook everyone has the same bases upon the years employed.

  • Brian Kuechler

    I showed up 20 minutes early for work at 5:00 AM, and the building was locked, with no manager present. After contacting another manager, I was told that the boss (store manager), who was supposed to be there at 5:00, thought he wasn’t working until 6:00, and that I should loiter at the nearby McDonald’s until he showed up. I asked if I should just go home, having already been there for 45 minutes, and was told that, if I did, I would be penalized for leaving early. How long, by law, am I required to stay if the building is locked and the boss isn’t present? I was under the impression it was 15 minutes, but would like clarification. They did say that I would be paid for that hour, but making me wait in a parking lot when it’s 50 degrees outside seems abusive, as does requiring me to hang around a local restaurant when I haven’t ordered anything, as I lacked the funds to do so. Thank you in advance for any consideration.
    -Regards, Brian Kuechler
    [email protected]

  • Sam

    I counted my drawer at work and it had the right amount of money in it when I left. I got home, about 15 minutes later, and my boss called to say my drawer was $30 dollars off and suspended me.

  • Helpless in Alabama

    So I work in an at will state and I knew I was about to get fired so I resigned. Even if my employers already had papers drawn but never presented them to me or verbally told me I was fired and I presented them with my resignation letter first which will be listed in my file, a firing or a resignation.

  • nayeli

    Need help myanager fired me at 3:45am 8/15/12 because i complain about her taking my tips is that fair????

  • Taz

    My boss hired and i only worked for tow days then he fired me because I have and a second job on the weekend. On the interview i told him that i have a weekend job and i’m available M-F only.

  • tasha caudle

    hi i live in indianapolis indiana and my friend was workin 12 hour shifts and this morrning his boss said he was fired and wont tell him why. can he sew him for fireing me for no reason because he is a really hard worker and it wasnt fair please let me know asap

  • Lost

    The board of directors at my job brought in a HR person that seems to be there to make a lot of necessary changes. When I refused to make a formal complaint about her assistant (she inherited) for her to present to the board her attitude toward me changed. Now it seems that she is attacking and threatening me at every move. I am very good at sticking to policy and doing my job I just did not want to get drawn into the feeding frenzy. It seems it may prove to be my demise there. Is there anything I can to to protect myself?

    • Niosso

      HR employees are the ones who most are supposed to complain to, if it is a private company the o my thing you could really do is find out who her boss is and explain the situation to them, if HR attempts to get you fired or suspended that would be illegal under that fact that that would be a personal vendetta as well as harassment. Past that there’s not much you can do.

  • jj

    They fire me sayin that i
    Work had zero hrs. They manuall
    went in the computer and change my
    hours i worked

  • jaime

    can a boss fire you for not willing to change my work hours even thow i have a signed contract?

  • Lorie_matias

    I was discharge… They just call me to talk to the hr and lp people. They said that i disobey rules. After talking to them 2 hr personnal came and hand me my final check and ask me to sign the discharge paper. Is this proper that they didn’t give me any notice? Thank you.

  • Ajason320

    If let go from a job,  how long does emlpoyer have to pay out last check and vacation pay

  • Ams_1149

    If an employee complains about another employee and say they are afraid of them causing the employee to get ritten up, does the employee have the right to defend themself and know who their acuser is? 

  • Raquel

    I want my boss to fire me? what can i do so she fires me? Reason i want her to fire me are 1. she gots her son working there for about 9 months now and he was only to work 3 months… he gets paid salary $3000.00 with deduction 2578.00 take home clean… i been with the company for 10 yrs and i only make !17.00 an hr. Last raise she game me was back in 2009 on $1.00 raise and told me that the company is not doing well. which i dont believe any of what she says. she ownes a storage, escrow, and property all over L.A. Her son comes in when ever he feels like it and takes 2-3 hrs lunch and most of his time is on the internet doing nothing. i have to run front office and back office while his out doing his excersice for the day.  Lately i have been pretty up set and just let the phone ring leave customer unattended and just basically just dont care. I feel that they are just using me and want me to quit my job which i wont do. so i need to know what i can do so she can fire me as soon as possible. Am been looking for another job and is just a matter of time. please write to me at [email protected]. or if any one have the same situation please let me know. i will highly appreciated.

    • Stevea1

      I can understand your frustration, some people at my job have been promoted for not doing much, while I do everything and can’t geet a raise either.  Do you really want to be fired, or just find a new job?  I know in this economy that is hard.  When you fill out an application what will you write for “reason for leaving?”  I have been fired by a previous employer, and it was a horrible experience, I was depressed and almost suicidal for 3 weeks.  They were doing something that wasn’t right, I protested it (too loudly) and the top people in the company tried to find a reason to fire me, they did.  Thier excuse was wrong, but I still got fired, I thought I would never get hired again.  I found a temp job that paid even more than that job.  Try looking at temp-to-hire work, it is better than getting fired.

    • Niosso

      honestly just keep doing what you’re doing and you’re bound they fired eventually

  • Dan

    i got fired for asking for 1 day off to visit with family on 4th of july weekend, and my boss told another employe the reason that i got fired, can i sue him for that? i need to know asap plz

  • concernedEmployee

    My employer expects us to use our own vehicles,phones, and pay for some of the cost to stay at hotels..we receive minimal on mileage and phone allowance and the hotels they choose for us are real cheap and in bad neighborhoods, so basically we pay extra for our safety.Our employer changes policy every other week so it becomes very hard to stay on task, yet they become very upset if you dont follow policy..They always threaten us with firing us if we ask questions.We feel that our rights are being taken from us at this company.What can we do??

  • D. Clay

    Bosses are yelling and cursing at their employees. They have started writing people up for speaking up. HR is backing mgrs up 100%. People are afraid to say anything. What can be done to protect the employees since there seems to be no on in their corner?

  • David H.

    Can an employer terminate your employment because of not attending a mandatory meeting? My Employer and I have a verbal agreement which is an understanding of important time alloted to schooling. Should I be concerned if the employer implies that I will be quitting if I do not attend?

    Thank you.

  • Calgt

    I and 3 other employees were told today that our office Positions were being eliminated and 3 other job positions were going to be available that we could “apply” and be interviewed for. These positions are for less pay than I am currently making and the hours are different from what I have worked for the past 29 years that I have been employed with this company. (yeah, Happy New Year, right?). Do I have any rights, and if I choose not to apply for a position, will I get unemployment?

  • Donna Chapman

    I feel I am being discriminated agaisnt for my medical history and not to mention the fact that I know of certain situation where this doctor has written prescriptions (Hydrocodone) for an employee. Even refusing the actual written prescription stating that he’s a doctor and he can write out prescriptions also. All the person wanted was a reimbursal of $ 156.00 which he already stated he would pay for out-of-pocket-costs that Kaiser didn’t cover. But when the receipt was brought to hime he didn’t want to pay such a high price and that he can order the prescriptions from MWI for only $ 16.00 a bottle? So you would rather do something illegal and could lose you DEA license. Than pay the $ 156.00 dollars? Well who’s gonna find out? His famous words….What should I do?

  • Donna Chapman

    Dear Eugene Lee,

    First off, let me start by thanking you for this “Question and Answer” section you have provided. Where shall I start…back in February of this year I got hired at Animal Eye Specialists. I never recieve an employee handbook nor did I sign anything stating the “termination policy.” When I was hired I told Dr. Hacker everything regarding my medical history even including my current prescriptions. This past Sunday I tweaked my back sliding a tempurpedic mattress into the guest room. Monday I woke up not able to stand or even be on my feet for to long. I talked to my doctor at Kaiser, who left it up to me on whether I should be at work (with restrictions). He wrote me a note for Monday and Tuesday ( I did show up for the morning on Tuesday, only to have Dr. Hacker excuse me from the afternoon to take care of my back at Kaiser) Wednesday morning I was feeling slightly better but unsure of my footing since i was feeling weak. I emailed him Wednesday morning ( I still have a copy of both emails) only to find an email from him stating that I had quit? What? So I quickly responded stating that I felt he was looking for any loop hole to let me go. He had already stated how pissed off he was that I hurt my back and that CA is an at-will. I think he feels that I was going to throw him under the bus which he mentioned several times not to do. About writing a prescription for a controlled substance (hydrocodone) 3 bottles for an employee. Which is a whole other issue….What should I do?

    • Eugene Lee

      Give me a call at 213-453-1781 to discuss further.

      How many employees at this company?



  • Marcelino Enriquez

    I’m employed by a private company in SFO airport who’s main office is base in Texas. I took a senior technician test and was told that I failed the test, i was denied of examining my papers. Is there any law that covers this issue in california or San Francisco county? Thanks

  • Dolcezza157

    I am being forced to resign or be terminated because I do not want to return working in an hostile environment. If I am terminated can I collect unemployment?

  • Marbar81

    I got hurt and broke my arm and I couldn’t work any more. My boss told me he needed someone that could work and this was my last check. Is this legal

  • Ivan

    i was fired from my previous employer for fake infractions, they adopted the at-will policy… the company refuses to pay my unemployment benefits can i sue…

  • Edwina J, Barnett

    I had worked at my former job for 5 years when I was abvruptly fired on Friday 2/12/10. I wasn’t given any reason until I pressed the issue then was told it was for poor job performance. I never received any performance evaluations from my supervisor so how would I know there was any issue with my performance? I believe I was fired so they could hire someone new and receive stimulus money from the government. I found an article online where they talk about hiring people from some specific programs through Workforce In Action (WIA. I am 55 years old and having a very hard time finding another job in this economy. I spoke with a lawyer soon after I lost my job about suing but was told that due to at will I wouldn’t be able to. This is so unfair!! Is there anything I can do about this?

  • Postergal

    An at-will employee may be fired at any time with or without legal grounds. Should you feel that you are fired illegally then you may ask the assistance of an employment lawyer to recover claims.

  • kyla

    Can my boss fire me if the business has had a fire? The business will be running in the future.

  • Eugene Lee

    J, you can but it depends on the type of legal issue involved. For instance, you can bring a claim against your boss, personally, for harrassing (sexually, racially, etc.) you in violation of anti-discrimination law. Another example would be defamation. Without more information, it’s hard to give a more detailed answer.

  • J

    Q: Can I sue my boss,personally, without sueing the company I work for?

  • Eugene Lee

    Jack, thank you for the comment. I think your comment raises a great point that I think I will make the subject of my next post. But to be brief, employees have PLENTY of meaningful recourse. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have any clients! California is perhaps the most pro-employee state in the Union. I like to think that employees are relatively well-protected here.

  • Jack Payne

    Of all your reasons, I like “and on and on and on” best. What meaningful recourse does an employee have? None and none and none.