What At-Will Employment Really Means
The District of Columbia, like many jurisdictions in the United States, uses the legal principle of employment at-will. This essentially means that an employer does not need cause to fire an employee unless an employment contract or other company document specifically says otherwise. But that does not mean an employer can fire an employee for any reason whatsoever. When employers take the concept of employment at-will too literally, they often get into trouble.
There are reasons for employee termination that are legally unacceptable, even in employment at-will jurisdictions. One of the more obvious is discrimination. Under state and federal statutes, it is unlawful to fire an employee because of his or her gender, race, religion, age (40 or over), or disability. That is why it is important to conduct and fully document investigations of improper conduct or evaluations of poor work performance and apply uniform employer policies before firing any employee.
Additionally, various whistleblower laws and provisions within other employment laws such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)[TBC1] , make it illegal for an employer to fire an employee for filing a complaint, workers compensation claim, or reporting violations of certain laws and regulations. Employees who provide evidence or testimony in discrimination investigations relating to other employees are also protected.
Other contract principles can also complicate the employee termination process. In short, despite the legal doctrine of employment at-will, employers must be very careful to protect themselves when terminating an employee, whether it is for poor conduct, unsatisfactory work performance, or general downsizing.