Your People Experts

Right To Work vs. Employment-At-Will

…What’s The Difference?


Managers or supervisors will mistakenly use the phrase “right to work” when they are actually referring to “employment-at-will”. Each phrase has its own distinct definition and it’s important to understand the difference.

Right to work

“Right to work” refers to a state’s law with respect to membership in a union.  In states that have adopted Right to Work laws, an employee may be included in a department that is unionized but has no obligation to actually join and pay dues to the union. Currently 27 states have adopted Right to Work laws giving employees the right to choose whether or not to pay dues to the union representing them.  There are some exceptions, such as for employees in the airline or railway industries and there may be some exceptions for federal contractors and certain public employers. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation shows the 27 states that currently have such laws and include links to each state’s law on their website.  Although a covered employee may choose not to be a member of the union representing him/her, the union still has an obligation to represent him/her.  If the union breaches that duty, the employee may file an unfair labor practice charge against the union.

In states that have not adopted right to work laws, the union may compel employees to join and pay dues or fees to the union within a specific time frame through security clauses that are included in the collective bargaining agreement between the union and employer.


Employment-at-will is a legal concept that employees and employers may terminate the employment relationship with or without notice and with or without cause.  Exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine include employment agreements and collective bargaining agreements.

Employment-at-will does not permit employers to terminate individuals for illegal reasons under state or federal law.  So, for example, you cannot be terminated for discriminatory reasons based on such things as pregnancy, age, race, etc. and you also cannot be terminated in retaliation for complaining about such discrimination. Similarly, an employer cannot terminate an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim.

Even though you are not obligated to have a reason to terminate an employee under this doctrine, it may not be the company’s best defense to lawsuit from a former employee.  The best practice is to make sure there is proper documentation of the reasons for terminating an employee. A termination should never come as a surprise to an employee and if the proper documentation is in place, it’ll be more difficult for an employee’s claim of wrongful termination to prevail.


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EAF provides information about current developments in labor and employment law. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. Questions requiring legal advice should be addressed to the attorney of your choice. EAF members may be able to obtain a legal interpretation through our FREE Legal Hotline.