Employment At-Will

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Federal

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Author: Darrell R. VanDeusen, Kollman & Saucier, PA

Summary

  • The United States is unique among developed nations in the relationship that exists between employers and employees. The employment at-will doctrine, accepted by nearly all 50 states, provides that either party may terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason. See What Is the Employment At-Will Doctrine.
  • Despite the flexibility afforded by the employment at-will doctrine, agencies, judges and juries in federal and state courts all expect employers to behave rationally and fairly toward their employees.
  • The employment at-will doctrine is not limitless. There are several key exceptions that restrict its application. An employer should make sure that an exception to the doctrine has not been inadvertently created during the recruiting or hiring process before terminating an employee. Likewise, the employer should be on notice that verbal or written representations made during employment can modify the at-will relationship. See Contract Exceptions.
  • Absent some contractual obligation, an employee can quit working for an employer without any repercussions. Employers, on the other hand, face potential legal disputes when they terminate an individual's employment, depending on the circumstances.
  • Before firing an employee, an employer should assess the employment relationship to determine if the at-will relationship has been modified. See Keeping Contract Language Out of Employee Handbooks; Verbal Promises Creating Implied Contracts.
  • The employment at-will doctrine generally does not apply in unionized workplaces, where just cause for discipline and discharge is typically incorporated into a collective bargaining agreement. See What Is Just Cause?
  • The employment at-will doctrine generally does not apply to public employment, where due process requirements exist. See Public Sector Protections.

State Requirements

The following states have additional requirements for this topic under applicable state law.