Answer: Yes. Over the years I have encountered many people who use these two terms interchangeably. In most states, “Employment-at-Will” is a common law doctrine meaning there is a mutual understanding between employer and employee, that absent a written contract that says otherwise, each party can terminate the employment relationship for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all, as long the termination does not violate any statutorily protected rights. The vast majority of states are “Employment-at-Will” states, and some states have additional exceptions due to court decisions creating protections in those states. [Note: Montana is the only state that is not considered an “Employment-at-Will” State. Montana passed the Wrongful Discharge From Employment Act in 1987].
Follow-up question: Since North Carolina is an employment-at-will state, why are terminations so complicated?
Answer: One reason is because there are several exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine. In fact, North Carolina is among the growing number of states that recognize a significant number of exceptions to employment-at-will. Historically, the only exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine were: (l) statutes like Title VII which prohibited discriminatory discharges; (2) employment contracts for a definite term; (3) collective bargaining agreements in which the employer agrees to discharge employees only for just cause; and (4) when an employee gives up something of value in exchange for a promise of job security. Now the most common exception to the employment-at-will rule is the "public policy exception" where an employee’s discharge violates public policy embodied in a specific statutory or constitutional provision. The exception has been applied to discharges resulting from whistle blowing, filing workers’ compensation claims, performing jury duty, invoking health and safety laws, refusing to testify falsely, consumer protection laws, and other laws which embody public policy.
“Right-to-Work”is a labor relations term that simply means that if an individual accepts a job with an organization that has a collective bargaining unit, the individual cannot be forced to join the union in order to keep his or her job. There are currently twenty-five (25) “Right-to-Work” states in the US. Wisconsin became the twenty-fifth state just last week. The Taft Hartley Act was passed in 1947 as an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This legislation gave states the right to determine if they wanted to be a “Right-to-Work” state. North Carolina was one of the first states in the US to enact such legislation (March 18th, 1947). For more information on “Right-to-Work”, go to http://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/right-to-work-laws-and-bills.aspx.
To dive deeper into “Employment-at-Will” and “Right-to-Work”, attend my free member webcast scheduled for Wednesday, March 25, 2015 from 8:30am until 9:00am. You can self-register for the webinar by clicking the green button above or here.