What is “at will” employment?

Most employees in Massachusetts are “at will,” which means that they can be fired at any time for any reason or for no reason at all, but they are protected against firing for certain specific reasons.

In practice, this means that your employer can fire you because he believes you are doing a bad job, whether or not this is true. You may not be terminated if this is just a pretext for an illegal discriminatory motive.

Are all employees in Massachusetts “at will”?

No. Some employees, mostly at a high managerial level, have private employment contracts. Union members enjoy certain rights through their collective bargaining agreement. Municipal, state and federal employees have due process rights under certain general rules and regulations and others specific to their employer.

Do “at will” employees enjoy any protection?

Employees, whether or not “at will,” may not be terminated or disciplined because of their age, disability, gender, race, national origin, veteran status, or sexual orientation, nor may they be harassed for these reasons. They may not be terminated in retaliation for asserting their rights against such discrimination. They may not be terminated for reporting their employer’s illegal activities.

My employer is harassing me. What can I do?

Harassment and bullying in the workplace are serious problems. The law offers little protection unless the employee is being harassed as a member of a “protected group”—in other words, if the harassment is based on sex, race, age, disability, national origin, etc.

In extreme cases, harassment may amount to the “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” which may serve as the basis for a complaint or lawsuit.

I was terminated while I was on a medical or pregnancy leave, or just after. What are my rights?

It is all too common for employers to violate their employees’ rights to medical and/or pregnancy or maternity leave and to retaliate against them for taking the time that is their due. Often an employee of many years’ standing sees his or her performance ratings plummet after a leave.

You generally have a right to take off time, either for an extended period or intermittently, not only on account of your own health issues but to care for a sick or disabled relative, and you are protected against retaliation for doing so.

I have medical issues, but I’m cleared for light duty or for fewer hours. What are my rights?

Generally speaking, an employee who is able to perform “the essential functions” of their job is entitled to a “reasonable accommodation” such as light duty, reduced hours, or certain kinds of assistance if he or she is suffering from a “disability”—which may be an impairment, a chronic illness, or an injury. Terminating such an employee may be illegal discrimination.

This is an area where everything depends on the specific facts of the case. What is a legal “disability,” what are the “essential functions” of the job, and how far the employer must go in accommodating the employee are all complex questions. Let us help you figure out and assert your rights.

I’m afraid my employer will retaliate against me if I bring in a lawyer. Shouldn’t I work my problems out myself?

This is a natural fear but such retaliation is illegal, and in our experience it just doesn’t happen. We negotiate with employers in a professional manner based on the facts and the law. Our premise is that the fair and legal resolution is also a “win-win.” In all settlements we insist on confidentiality, a promise not to disparage or defame the employee, and agreement on how the employer will answer outside questions.

For additional information on your legal rights, visit our “Resources” page.