I have recently had several clients mention to me during conversations regarding an employment termination that the state has a right to work law. Nearly every time what the client actually meant to refer to was the employment at will doctrine. This appears to be a common misunderstanding of terms. As explained below, right to work laws typically has no relevance to the employer’s right to terminate an employee, while the employment at will doctrine provides employers with very broad termination rights.
Employment at Will
Employment at will means that either the employer or employee may end the employment relationship at any time for any lawful reason. Another common misconception is that in an at-will state employers may terminate an employee for any reason whatsoever. However, the key is that the termination must be lawful (i.e. not illegal). Therefore, employers cannot terminate employees in a manner that would violate specific statutes (e.g. Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the National Labor Relations Act), contracts, or other court established the common law. Even in an at-will state, if the employer’s termination of an employee violates any established laws, then the employer may be liable to the employee for a wrongful termination.
Right to Work
Right to work, on the other hand, refers to state laws regulating mandatory union membership. In a right to work state, it is illegal for an employer to condition employment upon the joining of a union. In other words, you cannot be forced to join a union to get or keep a job. Typically, these state laws have nothing to do with the legality of a termination.