“If I’m ‘at will’ and therefore can leave my job whenever I want to, what effect does that have on an agreement I signed that I would repay monies if I left before 12 months?”

Question: When I joined I had to sign documents regarding both (1) a sign-on bonus, and (2) relocation expenses, that said if I voluntarily terminated my employment within 12 months of my start date, I’d have to repay both.

However, my employer and I also signed an employment agreement that stated that I was an “at will” employee, and so both the employer and the employee could terminate the employment relation any time each wanted to.

If I were to leave voluntarily before the 12 months is up, will I have to repay the monies to the company?

McKinney, Texas

Answer: Your question is a perfect one because it shines a spotlight on a legal point that many employees, employers, and even judges are very confused about.

“At will” employment means simply that either the employee or the employer can end the employment relation at any time for any proper reason. It has no meaning or effect on anything else: just the ability to end the relation.

An employer can end an “at will” relation with an employee on Thursday, but the employer still has to pay the employee what is owed, such as (1) wages for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and (2) the employee’s 401k monies being held by the company.

Likewise, an employee can end an “at will” relation with an employer on Thursday, but the employee still has to return to the employer the employer’s property, such as (1) laptop (2) cell phone and (3) company credit card and automobile.

In your case, even though you can end your employment relation, you still have to return to your employer what it is rightfully due: (1) sign-on bonus and (2) relocation expense.

We like to say, “At will affects the relation, not the compensation.” In your case, it would be “At will affects the relation, not the obligation.”

Hope that clears things up. Thanks for the question. Hope you’ll consider “subscribing” to our blogsite.

My best to you,
Al Sklover

If you agreed to repay your former employer (a) tuition reimbursement, (b) relocation expenses, (c) a sign-on bonus, or even (d) a short-term loan, you may be able to have that obligation waived and forgiven. To obtain a copy of our Model Memo entitled “Model Letter for Repayment Obligation Forgiveness – with 18 Great Reasons,” just [click here.] “What to Say, and How to Say It.™” – Delivered by Email – Instantly!

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