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What does at-will employment mean for employees?

New Jersey presumes that an employment relationship is "at-will," as is the case in nearly every state. At-will employment allows an employer or an employee to terminate the employment relationship at any time.

Additionally, at-will employment allows an employer to terminate the employment relationship for any reason so long as the reason is not illegal. The employer can do so without risk of incurring any type of legal liability. At the same time, an employee is able to quit a job for any reason without having to face legal consequences so long as he or she is an at-will employee. Likewise, an employer is able to modify terms of employment without having to provide notice to the employee. These modifications include a change of wages, benefits or policies that provide for paid time off.

While at-will employment is the presumption, it can be modified by employment contracts. For example, an employer and employee may agree that employment will endure for a certain period of time or only allow termination for cause. High-level employees may have an employment contract more often than lower level employees. Additionally, employees may enter into collective bargaining agreements that provide employees will not be terminated without cause. In some cases, there may not be an express contract in writing. However, an employee may be able to argue that an implied contract has been formed because an employer gave oral assurances by a supervisor. However, a written disclaimer in an employment handbook or similar document can help establish that policies do not provide contractual rights.

Because there are exceptions to the at-will presumption, this answer cannot adequately describe every possible deviation from this presumption. An individual who feels that he or she was wrongfully dismissed may wish to discuss the particular circumstances of his or her case with an employment law attorney in order to receive advice specific to his or her case.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures, "The At-Will Presumption and Exceptions to the Rule", November 01, 2014

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