At-will – what does it mean?

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Q:  I recently landed my first professional role, after completing my undergraduate degree.  The offer letter is confusing to me.  In my offer letter, it says that I will be an “at-will” employee.   What does this mean?

A:  Congratulations on receiving an offer!  This is an achievement!  Kudos to you!

Most employees working in the United States are “at-will” employees.  This term means you are not working with an employment agreement in place.  It can also mean that you are not a member of a union.  Don’t worry too much though.  Most employees in the US don’t have employment agreements.  Employment agreements are most often used for senior-level hires (e.g., Chief Executive Officers, Vice Presidents, etc.)  Most employees are not members of unions.  About 11% of all US workers are members of a union, and that number has been shrinking over the years.

The term “at-will” simply means that you can resign or leave your job at any time.  It also means that your employer can do the same: terminate you at any time for any reason.  You don’t have to give your employer notice that you are leaving your role and they don’t have to give you notice either.  However, most employees, as a professional courtesy, do provide their employer with two (or more) weeks notice before leaving the company.

Most US employers incorporate the “at-will” language in offer letters to newly hired employees.  The employer is trying to clearly explain the terms and conditions of your offer.  Your offer letter probably also confirmed your salary, start date and title.  It may have also included information on where to report on your first day as well as what to bring with you.

It would be smart to review your company’s employee handbook or policy manual, if one is available.  The information contained in this document will give you an overview of expectations and “rules of the road” with your new company.  Good luck!

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.