Employment Discrimination 101: What Does “At-Will” Mean?

When a Missouri employee hears the phrase “At-Will,” they often assume that they can be terminated for any reason whatsoever.  To be “At-Will” simply means that an employee or employer may terminate the employment relationship at any time, except in cases where there is a contract for employment or union contract, discrimination, or the employee has other legal protections. In the state of Missouri, there are several exceptions which make it illegal for an Employer to terminate an at-will employee. Generally, there are two categories of exceptions: those which are statutory and those which are not codified in law, but the courts have otherwise chosen to recognize.

Statutory/Codified Exceptions

These particular exceptions include those which many think of as “the law.” The state of Missouri passed a comprehensive set of laws known as the Missouri Human Rights Act. The purpose of this Act was to foster fair treatment and discourage discrimination of employees who fall within the boundaries of a protected category. The protections under this Act are afforded to the following protected categories: race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability, and age. It also protects employees from retaliation for engaging in a protected activity, like filing a complaint of discrimination. There are also protections against retaliation for things like filing a Workers’ Compensation claim.

In addition to the state-specific laws, individuals are also afforded protection under a number of federal laws. Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act provides protections similar to those under the Missouri Human Rights Act. Protected categories under Title VII include: race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Additional federal protections are codified in the Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Together, these statutes work to afford extensive protections to individuals who are At-will, but are discriminated against, harassed, or otherwise treated unfairly due to one of the protected classes.

Non-codified Exceptions

The Missouri courts have, on several occasions, encountered situations which required an exception to the law that was not previously codified. These exceptions are most often categorized as “Wrongful Discharge.” An individual may have a claim for wrongful discharge if they were terminated or discriminated against for reporting wrongdoings or violations of the law, refusing to commit a crime or otherwise acting contrary to a recognized public policy, or performing a civic duty such as jury duty or participating in an ongoing lawsuit and/or investigation.

If you feel like you have been wrongfully discharged or are a victim of unlawful discrimination, harassment or retaliation, do not wait to contact an attorney about your options. Our previous blog post, “Employment Discrimination 101: When should I get an attorney?” will help you understand the importance of getting representation early on.

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