When you’re hired, your employer will often tell you that you are an “at-will” employee. The next time you usually hear that phrase is when you’re fired. Employers rely on this “legal principle” to justify firing employees for any and every possible reason. In fact, employers often say that because Maryland is an “at-will” employment state, they can fire any employee for any reason at any time. While there is a lot of truth to this statement, there are important exceptions.
So what does “at will” employment really mean? Well, it is true that an employer can terminate your employment for nearly any reason. If an employer does not like your attitude, you can be fired. If you make a single, minor mistake on the job, you can be fired. If you fail to follow a rule or come to work five minutes late, you can be fired. If you tell a dumb joke or make an inappropriate comment you can be fired. In other words, you can be fired for nearly any reason that your employer wants to fire you.
Luckily, there are several important exceptions. First, your employer may not be able to fire you if you have a written (or sometimes verbal) contract that limits the reasons for termination. Second, you cannot be fired for discriminatory reasons, such as your age, gender, race, national origin or disability. Third, you cannot be fired for filing a workers compensation claim, or for demanding proper wages or overtime pay, or for taking time off for medical reasons or to take care of family members (depending on the size of your employer). Finally, you cannot be fired if your termination would be contrary to public policy, such as if you are a whistleblower or are engaging in conduct that is protected by law.