Overview of California Employment Law


This memorandum provides some basic information about employment laws in California including termination of employment, discrimination and sexual harassment, family leave, privacy rights of employees, and performance appraisals.

Termination of Employment

What rights does an employee have when he or she is laid off, fired, or otherwise terminated from employment?

Under California law, employment is presumed to be at-will. At-will employment means the employee or the employer can end the employment relationship at any time, with or without a good reason. However, the employer and the employee can agree to a relationship that is not at-will and that does require a good reason to end the relationship.

Many people believe that at least two weeks notice has to be given before an employee resigns or is terminated. California law does not require any notice period by either the employer or the employee. It may be a company policy or practice to give two weeks’ notice, and it may be considerate to do so, but the law does not require it unless there is an express or implied promise to such notice. However, there are government regulations requiring some large employers to provide a certain amount of notice before plant or location shut downs. In many government jobs and union jobs there are policies or collective bargaining agreements limiting the employer’s right to terminate the employee except under certain conditions and following certain procedures.


Sometimes an employer can terminate an employee only for a good reason, and sometimes without any reason, but an employer cannot terminate an employee for certain prohibited reasons, such as discrimination based on certain classifications. Discrimination based on an employee’s race, religion, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability is generally prohibited. Under the federal Family

and Medical Leave Act and the California Family Rights Act, many employees have the right to take leave to prepare for the birth or the adoption of a child, to care for a sick relative, or to care for the employee’s own serious health condition. An employee may not be terminated for legitimately exercising his or her rights under such laws. An employee cannot be fired in retaliation for complaining about an employer’s violations of certain laws or for participating in an investigation into a complaint about discrimination in the workplace.

Privacy Rights of Employees

All individuals in the State of California are guaranteed the right to privacy by the Constitution of the State of California. In the workplace, an employer may not interfere with the employee’s right to privacy unless it is justified by a compelling business interest. That means the employer has to have a very good reason for interfering with the rights of its employees. An employee’s right to privacy limits an employer’s ability to do background checks on the employee before hiring, to investigate the employee’s character before or after hiring, to test the employee for use of drugs or alcohol, to investigate claims of employee misconduct, and to regulate employee life styles.  The employer is also limited in information it can provide to others about the employee.

Performance Appraisals

There is no set of laws that applies to performance appraisals.  Indeed, the law does not require employers to make performance appraisals.  The policies and procedures for conducting performance appraisals and for seeking a review of performance appraisals are usually set forth in an employee handbook, or in some other written form.  If an employee feels that his or her performance appraisal was unfair, then the employee should first consider seeking review using the employer’s procedures for internal review.  If the employee believes his or her performance appraisal was unfair because of discrimination or some other illegal purpose, it may be a case for legal action.  If it is really just a difference of opinion, then there may not be any basis for legal action.