Giving an employer two weeks notice when you leave is such a conventional practice that you might assume doing so is mandated by law. However, your 14-day warning is technically
more of a courtesy and less of a legal obligation — at least in most cases.
The vast majority
of employment in the United States happens on an "at-will" basis, which means an employer can fire a worker at any time, without giving specific cause (as long as the reason is not illegal and/or discriminatory). Although that's not always the greatest situation, the flip side of working at will is that employees can do the same and quit their jobs any time they choose, without giving cause. There are no federal or state laws
that requires giving two-weeks notice.
However, where things can get tricky depends on your specific situation, and your specific contract. Yes — all that paperwork you didn't really read through once you agreed on your pay and benefits when accepting a new job.
"I'd estimate that 10% or 20% of at-will employees have some form of an employment agreement that places restrictions on the at-will relationship," says James M. Paul, co-chair of the American Bar Association
(ABA) Subcommittee on the Family and Medical Leave Act, and a shareholder with the Ogletree Deakins
law firm. "These are promises made on both sides, involving things like how much notice either side should give, what happens in a transition, and if the person will train their replacement or at least spend however many days or weeks easing the successor into that role."
These agreements can be particularly restrictive in highly competitive industries, or with employees with specialized skills closer to the executive level. For example, it's easier to find new employees for roles in the service industry rather than jobs that require very technical — and propriety — skills. In those cases, Paul says agreements might restrict the timeframe in which an employee can work for a competitor, or ask that both sides give 30 days notice before termination under the penalty.
In any case, Paul says the legal enforceability of employee agreements depends on the actual agreement. Giving your boss a reasonable amount of time to find a replacement is highly advisable (you don't want a black cloud to hover over you in the industry you love), but not doing so isn't against the law — even if your most disgruntled manager vows to sue.
"It would not be possible to enforce actual forced servitude for two weeks or whatever the notice period is. However, an employer could sue for damages," Paul says, pointing to money they lost as a result of your sudden departure (including loss of clients/sales, extra cost of hiring someone ASAP and training them, cost of engaging a headhunter or staffing agency while scrambling to hire someone immediately).
In short, read what you sign before you start a job to make sure you aren't making any promises that you don't want to keep down the line.