The at-will doctrine used by the state of California means employers are free to fire workers for any reason, provided the employers do not violate civil rights laws that forbid discrimination. However, if a company describes specific procedures for firing an employee, it could be argued that the company has waived at-will firing. One place to look for these procedures is an employee handbook.
As Entrepreneur.com explains, workplaces create employee handbooks to address a number of subjects, including how employees are to behave while on the job, how they are to dress, and their place in the company hierarchy. If an employee breaks a rule, the employee may be disciplined. Lesser disciplinary actions may involve the loss of privileges or benefits, while in more severe cases, an employee may be terminated.
Employee handbooks help employers because they establish how a worker can be fired and decrease the risk of litigation. However, a handbook might still make it possible for a worker to claim wrongful termination if the employee was not fired according to the procedures described in the handbook. If companies compose rationales and procedures for firing employees, it is possible to argue that a company waived at-will firing in favor of its own particular termination policy.
An employee might also have a wrongful termination argument if the termination policy described in the handbook is not being fairly applied. In the event a company has made exceptions to its disciplinary and termination policies, those exceptions should be explained. A company can also run afoul of civil rights laws if its termination policies are unfairly applied to people based on disability, gender, race or sexual orientation.
Still, many employee handbooks do affirm that a company is an at-will employer. According to FindLaw, a handbook may state clearly that the employer retains the right to fire someone according to the at-will doctrine. Even if it does not, there may be language in the handbook that implies the employer retains this right. You may need to consult with an attorney to verify that the handbook is clear in communicating this message.