From specific regulations regarding what must occur before an employer can hire or fire an employee, to employment laws that don’t regulate much at all, employment laws not only vary from country to country but city to city. In the interest of time and space, this article will focus on US law. In the United States, most nannies work “At-Will,” but what exactly does “At-Will” employment mean? The term At-Will is the legal way of saying it is the party’s choice to work or not work. Unless one can show that there is an explicit (or implicit as we will see) employment contract governing the relationship between the employee and employer, it is up to the parties involved to determine when and if they begin, change, or terminate the employment relationship.

Legally speaking, this means that as an employee or an employer, you can enter into, change, and exit out of, any At-Will employment relationship at any time, for any reason, unless that reason is illegal or against public policy. Being reprimanded for smelling bad? That’s OK. Getting fired for not folding clothes the right way? Time to start looking for another job. Want to quit because your boss does not do the dishes at night? The Court says this is fine.

So what exactly does it mean to be “illegal or against public policy?” The Court/Congress has wrestled with this exact question many times, and luckily for us, seems to have a pretty good idea of what it means. An adverse employment action will be found unlawful when it:

Violates a valid employment contract

You cannot be fired/disciplined for “any reason” if you and your employer have mutually agreed, in a contract, to abide by certain ‘rules’ as laid out in that contract. If an employer fires you for something they said they wouldn’t or doesn’t follow the process laid out in your employment agreement, this constitutes a breach of a valid contract and is therefore against public policy.

Understanding an express contract is easy. Having an implied contract can prove to be quite tricky. While having a work agreement is a good idea, many employers don’t realize that depending on the terms; it applies to them as much as it does to their employees.

If your work agreement has a process for discipline/termination (i.e., verbal warning written warning, personal improvement plan, termination) and you do not follow this process, you may be liable for having breached an implied contract and could be on the hook for unlawful termination. It doesn’t have to be an expressly written policy either. If everyone gets a first warning, and an employee is fired on their first infraction, there is a good chance the court is going to side with the employee.

Discriminates based on a protected trait

The United States government generally frowns on discrimination, but it has only protected specific attributes. Discrimination based on any of the following attributes is illegal*.

  • Race
  • National Origin
  • Sex / Gender / Sexual Orientation
  • Disability Status
  • Age
  • Religion

*If the business can show a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (“BFOQ”) they may be allowed; to use these attributes to discriminate. A BFOQ exists when the employer can show that discrimination is reasonably necessary to perform the normal operation of the particular business or enterprise. This applies to all attributes but race. For example, hiring only men as models for men’s clothes. An industry example of this might be if the principal has four rambunctious kids that love to run around and the employee is not able to keep pace due to their age.

Blatant discrimination is obvious, but a lot of times employers can get tagged for disparate impact. Read more about disparate impact in my article about it.

Violates the rights created by law

Without getting too deep into it here, there are various laws which grant workers rights to do specific activities for which they cannot be disciplined or terminated. In the United States, there are several prominent laws that specifically apply to workers. The Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) which protects an employee’s job if they have to take leaves of absence for specific medical related reasons. An example of this would be if an eligible employee had a child and wanted to take time off to bond with the newborn, the employer is prevented from doing things such as terminating the employee or changing health insurance benefits. While the FLMA only applies to certain employers, many localities have their own more specific requirements, so make sure to check out your local regulations as well. While the FLMA only applies to employers with 50 or more employees, states have their own versions such as New York’s Paid Family Leave Law under which most private employers with one or more employee is required to provide Paid Family Leave.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) lays out the basic requirements of employing someone. Mainly focusing on things like wages, hours, and overtime, the FLSA governs everything from what the conditions of a nanny’s quarters must be, to the sleep requirements.

Various state and federal whistle-blower statutes which prevent a company from retaliating against an employee for whistle-blowing. If nanny overhears their employer committing insider trading and blows the whistle, they may be entitled to a reward upon the conviction. All of these laws have intricacies that are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that it is worthwhile to speak with an attorney regarding these matters.

Apart from the above-mentioned carve-outs, At-Will employment means that two parties can begin, change, and end an employee/employer relationship at any time, for any reason. If you have any questions about how to comply, and if you are complying with these rules, reach out to an attorney familiar with the local laws and regulations in your area.

Chase Victorson is the Managing Director of Victorson Legal Professional Corporation (“VictorCorp”) Dreamed up in 2014, VictorCorp was created to focus on the unique employment law challenges within the domestic services industry. From a nanny to a flight crew, to full house staff, VictorCorp helps employers understand and adapt to the employment law environment while providing employees with the information they need to protect their interests. Learn more about VictorCorp at

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