One of the questions I get all of the time during consultations is, “what does it mean to be an ‘at will’ employee?” If you have this question, then you are in luck because that is what this week’s blog is all about!

First, “at will” employment is the default employment relationship in the state of Texas.  That means if you do not have a contract or agreement defining some other type of employment relationship with your company, then you are an “at will” employee.  By far, most employees are “at will” employees.

The standard definition of “at will” employment that you will get from your boss or from HR is that it means an employee can be hired or fired for any or no reason at all.  The reason for termination can be fair, unfair, just, unjust, whimsical, arbitrary, stupid, mean, petty, or silly.  When talking about “at will” employment during consultations, I often use the following example: if you are an “at will” employee, then your boss can fire you because they had a dream last night that you are actually a giant bunny rabbit from outer space hellbent on taking over Earth and that is just not the kind of being the company wants to employ.

There are other types of employment relationships such as a “for cause” relationship.  With “for cause” employment, the employer can only fire the employee for cause as defined somewhere, usually in the employment agreement or contract.  So to use the space bunny example, again.  If you are a “for cause” employee, you cannot be fired for being a giant space bunny unless that is listed as good cause for termination in your employment agreement or contract.

All of the above is correct, but it is incomplete.  You see, your boss and HR forgot to tell you the most important part.  An “at will” employee can be hired or fired for any reason or no reason at all as long as it doesn’t violate the law.  And that is where employment laws come in.  That is why even “at will” employees cannot be fired or not hired based on their sex, race, religion, disability, national origin, color, or age.  So going back one more time to our space bunny example.  Sure, your boss can fire you because they dreamed that you are a giant bunny rabbit from outer space, but not if the reason you are being fired is because they dreamed you are a female or black or Catholic bunny rabbit from outer space.   

It’s not just unlawful discrimination that modifies the “at will” employment relationship.  An employer cannot use “at will” employment as a shield to engage in retaliation.  The laws prohibit employers from taking adverse action against employees for reporting discrimination or, depending on the nature of your employer, reporting violations of laws, rules, and regulations.

And that’s where plaintiff’s side employment lawyers like myself and the other attorneys at my firm come in.  Every day we represent “at will” employees who have been fired, demoted, transferred, not promoted, or not hired because of a protected characteristic like sex, race, religion, disability, national origin, color, or age.

If you think you have been fired because of a protected class you are in or for reporting discrimination against yourself or others based on a protected class, you should talk to a Texas Employment Lawyer.  If you think you have been subjected to an adverse action because you engaged in whistleblowing, you should contact a plaintiff’s employment attorney.  Contrary to what your boss and HR want you to believe, “at will” employment does not allow your employer to do whatever it wants for any reason or no reason at all.  Your employer must still follow the law and it should be held accountable, when it doesn’t.         

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Photo of Colin W. Walsh Colin W. Walsh

We asked Colin W. Walsh, an experienced Trial Attorney in the Austin office of Rob Wiley, P.C., to impart his candid answers to a range of questions.   After reading, you will be more more informed on the well-respected reputation that Mr. Walsh 

We asked Colin W. Walsh, an experienced Trial Attorney in the Austin office of Rob Wiley, P.C., to impart his candid answers to a range of questions.   After reading, you will be more more informed on the well-respected reputation that Mr. Walsh carries.

1. What do you like most about being an employment lawyer?

I enjoy getting tangible results for my clients and being involved in an area of law that affects everybody every day.

2. What is the most important issue to you of being an advocate?

One of the most important issues to me as an advocate is to not only zealously represent my clients, but also the law.

3. What kind of clients do you like best?

I like the clients that I am able to help who were not able to find help elsewhere.  On a couple of occasions now, a client has told me that my firm is the first one that has listened to his or her issue and offered any kind of assistance.

4. What do you think is the most important part of a good case?

The client.  If the client is not invested, then the other side won’t take it seriously and neither will the jury.

5. What labor and employment issues do you think are currently trending?

The biggest employment discrimination issues I see right now are related to age, disability, and pregnancy discrimination.  For some reason, these types of discrimination seem to be acceptable to employers.  The other issues right now are minimum wage and overtime pay.

6. Who is your favorite Supreme Court Justice?

Justice William Brennan.

7. What would you say to HR of a company about how to treat employees?

It would be to listen to your employees.  Most employees are not looking to sue when he or she goes to Human Resources.  These employees are sincerely looking for help.  Nothing makes an employee seek legal counsel like when he or she complains about something and HR starts investigating the employee instead of the complaint.

8. Besides Rob Wiley, P.C., what is the most interesting job that you have had?

The most interesting job I’ve had is working as an extra in film and television.  I should have known that I was destined to be a lawyer at that point because two of my biggest gigs were the TV show “Boston Legal” and the film Charlie Wilson’s War.

9. What is your favorite food?

Meat pies.  I first discovered them when I studied abroad in undergrad.  I can’t believe these have not caught on in the U.S. because they are brilliant.

10. What’s the best part of living in Austin?

All of the outdoor festivals.  And the Longhorns.

Colin W. Walsh is a Trial Attorney in the Austin office of Rob Wiley, P.C.  He graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in theatre in 2006.  Mr. Walsh then graduated from The University of Texas School of Law with honors in 2011.