Most workers in the United States are at-will employees. If you work at will, your employer can fire you at any time and for any reason that is not illegal. (It’s illegal to fire even an at-will employee for discriminatory reasons or in retaliation for making a workplace complaint, for example.) Similarly, you are also free to quit your job at any time and for any reason.
Just because you can leave without notice doesn’t mean you should, however. If you want your employer to give you a strong reference and keep you in mind for future opportunities, you’ll want to leave on a good note.
Make Sure You’re an At-Will Employee
In all states except Montana, you are presumed to be an at-will employee unless you have an employment contract that states otherwise. (In Montana, you are no longer an at-will employee once you have successfully completed your employer’s probationary period, or if your employer doesn’t have one, the first six months of employment.)
If you are an at-will employee, you are free to quit your job whenever you wish, for any reason, with or without giving notice. However, if you have an employment contract for something other than at-will employment, you must abide by the terms of that agreement. For example, if your employment agreement requires you to give at least one month’s notice before you quit, you are legally obligated to do so.
Not all employment contracts are written and signed. If you promised your employer in person that you would give notice before leaving, for example, you might be obligated to do so. (For more information on different types of contracts, see Employment Contracts Trump “At-Will” Employment.)
Give Notice If Possible
Sometimes, employees feel forced to quit their jobs because of legal, safety, or moral concerns. If you find yourself in this situation, it may not be practical or safe to give any notice. As long as you’re an at-will employee, you don’t need to give notice or a reason for quitting.
However, if you aren’t facing a dire work situation, it’s a good idea to give your employer some warning, even if you’re not legally obligated to. Giving at least two weeks' notice allows your employer to begin the process of hiring your replacement before you leave and gives you the time to wrap up the projects you’ve been working on. If you extend this courtesy, your current employer is more likely to provide a favorable recommendation when you apply for another job.
Respect Your Employer's Property
Whether you are an at-will employee or an employee with an employment contract, always try to leave on good terms with your employer. This means respecting your employer’s time and property. For example, avoid updating your resume or searching for a new job when you are supposed to be working.
Likewise, don't take office supplies, business records, client information, or any other property belonging to your employer. Not only is this conduct unprofessional, taking your employer’s physical or intellectual property may also be illegal. If you're not sure whether something belongs to you or to your employer, check your employee handbook or ask someone in the human resources department.
Often, employers ask departing employees to return all company property at an exit interview, during which the employer can ask questions about why the employee is leaving, what the company could do better, and so on. Providing feedback at the exit interview is another way you can maintain a good relationship with your employer.
Get Your Last Paycheck
You are entitled to prompt payment for the time you worked for your employer. Many states have laws addressing when departing employees must receive their final paychecks. If you quit without notice, most states allow your employer to wait until the next regularly scheduled payday to provide your final check. In many states, you may be entitled to receive your paycheck on your last day of work, especially if you gave plenty of notice. State laws differ, however; to find out the rules in your state, see our state chart on Final Paychecks for Departing Employees.
If your employer does not pay you within the time limits set out in your state’s law, you may file a complaint with your state’s labor department.
An Employment Lawyer Can Help
Employment laws can be complicated, and each case is unique. If you have legal questions—particularly if you feel you were forced to quit, or you believe your employer acted illegally during your employment—contact an experienced employment lawyer.