Under California law, an at-will employee can be terminated for any legal reason or no reason. However, in reality not giving a reason for termination to the employee you are about to fire is often a bad idea, because it can make any potential wrongful termination case they will pursue stronger.
Here is a common example to demonstrate the above risk. Let’s say you have an employee named David who has been working for the company for ten, fifteen or more years. His performance might not have been perfect throughout the years, but he must have been doing something right if he has been around for so long. Some time ago you become genuinely unhappy about David’s performance or attitude or both. And then, there comes a day when you fire him. When he asks why he is being terminated, you tell him that you don’t have to provide him the reason. It later turns out that David filed a workers comp claim about a month or two before his termination. Or, he asked for FMLA or disability leave. Or, he filed some kind of harassment complaint or safety violation complaint with your HR office.
Now, David will assume (and reasonably so) that if you didn’t tell him the reason for his termination, and he is fired shortly after one of the above events despite his lengthy career with the company, this must be discrimination or retaliation on your part. Whether it’s true or not and how you feel about it is not nearly as important as what it looks like – to the lawyers who David will contact for representation, to the Court and to the jury, if the case goes that far.
The way to avoid the above serious and potentially costly situation is to make sure that you provide your employee with an honest and legitimate reason for termination. Your employment attorney should be able to advise you on how to formulate the termination decision in a way that will reduce the risk of litigation.