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Employer’s Guide to At-Will Employment in Wisconsin

At-will employment is a common law doctrine that allows an employer to terminate an employee at any time and for any reason. But what if the reason given for termination is illegal? In Wisconsin, there are several ways in which an at-will employee may be wrongfully terminated. Employers must be aware of the law to avoid expensive legal entanglements concerning employment law in Wisconsin.

What is At-Will Employment?

The doctrine of at-will employment is based on the principle that the employment relationship is voluntary—that is, either party can terminate it without notice or cause.

At-will employment offers a number of benefits to employers, including the flexibility to terminate employees who are not performing well or who are not a good fit for the company, control over their staffing levels, and the ability to make quick changes in staffing as needed, but can also lead to higher employee turnover and increased legal risks for wrongful termination claims. Additionally, employers who utilize an at-will employment model can face risks to their reputation and ability to attract top talent if management cannot show good cause for terminations.

Is At Will Employment Legal In Wisconsin?

Yes. At-will employment is not only legal, it is the general rule for employers in Wisconsin. This means that employers can generally terminate employees for any reason, or no reason at all, as long as the reason is not illegal. At will employment is codified in Wisconsin Statute § 766.31(1), which states that “an employer may discharge an employee at any time for any reason or for no reason at all, with or without notice, and with or without cause.”

Once of the biggest benefits to employing your workers under an at-will model is that it allows you to quickly, effectively, and legally terminate employees who show cause for termination. Valid reasons for termination include objectively poor performance, insubordination, attendance issues, dishonesty at work and violations of company policies.

Best Practices for Employers In Wisconsin

Employers can minimize the challenges of at-will employment by following these best practices:

  • Have clear and concise employment policies and procedures. This will help employees understand the company’s expectations and the consequences for violating company policies.
  • Be fair and consistent in enforcing employment policies and procedures. This will help to avoid claims of discrimination and other legal challenges.
  • Document employee performance and disciplinary issues. This will help to support the employer’s decision to terminate an employee, if necessary.
  • Consult with an attorney before terminating an employee. This can help to ensure that the termination is legal and to avoid costly lawsuits.

What is Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination is when an employee is fired for an illegal reason, such as when an employer fires an employee because of their race, age, gender, religion, or national origin.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

In Wisconsin, the rule of at-will employment generally applies. This means an employer can terminate an employee at any time, for any reason, with or without notice. However, there are some exceptions to this rule.

  1. Personal traits such as marital status, veteran status, mental disability, citizenship status, ethnicity, genetic information, national origin, and pregnancy cannot be the basis for termination.
  2. Discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation (Wisconsin Statute § 111.321) is prohibited.
  3. Employers cannot legally fire an employee as retaliation for blowing the whistle on illegal activity (Wisconsin Statute § 111.367).
  4. An implied contract based on the terms of an employee handbook can provide protection. For example, if a guide lays out a procedure for identifying and addressing performance issues, it is implied the procedure will be followed before termination.
  5. Retaliation for exercising certain employee rights, such as the right to file a workers’ compensation claim or the right to join a union (Wisconsin Statute § 111.36)

Questions? Our employer attorneys can help.

At-will employment offers a number of benefits to employers, but it is important to be aware of the challenges and to follow best practices to minimize the risks. Employers in Wisconsin should also be aware of the legal and illegal reasons to terminate an employee, as terminating an employee for an illegal reason can result in costly lawsuits.

If you have any questions about at-will employment in Wisconsin, please consult our employment law defense attorneys. Our lawyers have been advising and defending businesses’ rights since 1889. Our offices are located in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and we advise clients throughout the state.