What does "at-will" employment mean?

In a nutshell, at-will employment is a type of employment contract where either the employer or employee may terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without cause.  In other words the employer may fire the at-will employee whether or not it has a good reason, and the employee may quit at any time, whether or not he or she has a good reason.  Most states, including California, follow the "at-will" employment doctrine.

Although the at-will employment doctrine gives an employee the right to quit for any or no reason, this rule most frequently comes into play as a defense used by employers who have been accused of terminating an employee without good cause.  In those situations, the employer simply argues that it was not required to have good cause to terminate the at-will employee.  In many cases they are right.  Over the years, however, certain exceptions to this doctrine have developed which in some circumstances will permit  an at-will employee to pursue a legal action if terminated unjustly.  Many of these exceptions are discussed in detail on this website.