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What does 'at will' employment mean in Oklahoma?

Residents of Oklahoma may have heard the term "at will" employment bandied about from time to time. While it may seem self-explanatory, sometimes there is confusion as to what it entails. What does this term mean and how does it affect employer-employee relations in the state?

The "at will" employment doctrine has a long history in the United States. While many industrialized countries have abandoned it, most states in this country, including Oklahoma, still consider it the presumptive status of private employer-employee relationships. What it means is that, absent some illegal intent on the part of the employer, a worker can be fired at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. So, if your employer fires you for what you consider an "unfair" or "unjust" reason, it has not necessarily done anything illegal. An employer can terminate a worker because he doesn't like the employee's hair, or because he wants to give his son-in-law that employee's job. This is true even if the fired worker has been an exemplary employee. Basically, there is no legal requirement that most employers must have "just cause" to fire an employee.

There are exceptions, however. If one has a written employment contract, for example, the contract may specify what causes are available to the parties to terminate the relationship. Union members may fall under a collective bargaining agreement that limits employer's freedom to terminate employees. And, of course, employers may not discriminate against members of a protected class in hiring and firing. So, being terminated solely because of one's race, religion, nationality, gender, or age (if one is over 40) may mean the worker has a legal remedy.

Because of the "at will" doctrine, it can be difficult to prove that you have been fired for an impermissible reason. Because of this, if you think you have been illegally discriminated against, you might want to consider contacting an experienced employment law attorney. These legal professionals have seen what patterns of illegal workplace discrimination look like, and may be able to help spot signs that can be used to build a solid case.

Source: Oklahoma Bar Association, "Can my employer fire me without a good reason? ," accessed Feb 3, 2015

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