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Employment at Will

Employment at will means that an employer can fire an employee for a good or a bad reason, or for no reason at all. If a reason is given, it cannot be based on discrimination or retaliation, such as being fired for reporting illegal activities or unsafe conditions.

In the same way, an employee can quit a job without a reason, or for a good or a bad reason. Employment at will for the most part favors the employer. There is little employees can do to protect themselves from the whims of the employment at will doctrine.

The right of a company to unilaterally (“affecting only one side”) terminate an employee at will, with or without cause, was confirmed by the courts in the late 1800s. This at-will doctrine has been reinforced through the years by statutes and court rulings, and remains the main defense employers use against disgruntled employees who have been discharged suddenly without any reason provided.


  • Protesting against employment at will
  • Rights of the employee at the workplace

The presence of a law or administrative rule restricts an employer’s ability to fire at will. These laws or rules take many forms, and typically prevent employers from terminating employees for filing workers’ compensation claims, or for refusing to perform a dangerous work task. This is the public policy exception accepted by 42 states.

The implied-contract exception holds that the presence of any written materials or conversations implying the long-term stability of an employee’s job entitles the employee to compensation for most types of dismissal. This is accepted by 38 states.

The third exception, termed the “covenant of good faith and fair dealing” exception, applies to only 11 states. This exception holds that even in the absence of rules establishing the first and second types of exception, employers are obligated to provide a legitimate reason for every employee dismissal.

There are three board categories of employee who are not governed by the employment at will doctrine:

Government employees: Federal, state and local government workers are protected by the 5th and 14th Amendments, which prohibit the government from depriving any person of "life, liberty or property" without the due process of law. These employees are considered to have a property interest in their jobs, and the right to due process places significant restrictions on arbitrary dismissals unrelated to job performance.

Union members: All collective bargaining agreements between labor unions and employers stipulate that unionized employees can be fired only for just cause, and only after a hearing before a neutral arbitrator.

Contract employees: Senior executives, performers, athletes and some other well-situated employees work under individual employment contracts that provide protection against unjust dismissal.

Note: No employees can be discharged for an illegal reason because of their race, sex, age, religion, nationality, or disability.

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