Overview: The employment at-will doctrine provides employers with critical flexibility when it comes to terminating employees for disciplinary issues, poor performance, or in connection with layoffs or restructuring. However, the doctrine is interpreted and applied differently in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Common exceptions are made for employees retained by an employment contract, employees protected by implied contracts, terminations that would violate public policy, terminations made in bad faith and other employment-related claims like intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation and fraud.
Given the myriad exceptions, it is imperative that employers take steps to preserve the at-will relationship. HR professionals should ensure employees sign and acknowledge at-will disclaimers, craft and distribute policy manual or employee handbook provisions detailing the employment at-will doctrine, and educate supervisors regarding the risks of promising employment tenure or certain grounds for termination. In that regard, the employment at-will doctrine is only as powerful as the employer's program to implement it.
Trends: The landscape of wrongful termination law, including the exceptions to the employment at-will doctrine recognized in each state, is constantly evolving with notable recent cases in North Carolina and Texas. Given these developments, it is crucial that employers monitor the evolution of the employment at-will doctrine in their state(s) so that when it comes time to make the difficult decision of terminating an employee, they are fully informed as to the possible implications.
Author: Michael Jacobson, JD, Legal Editor
Updated to reflect caregiver status protections in New York City, effective May 4, 2016.
Updated to reflect forthcoming amendments to equal pay law expanding coverage to employers that employ two or more employees.
Updated to include forthcoming requirements regarding the enforcement of noncompete agreements.
Updated to include forthcoming requirements regarding post-termination restrictive covenants.
Updated to include a recent decision on viable claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
Updated to reflect new limitations on claims for public policy violations as a result of Sanford v. Jacobs Technology, Inc.
Updated to reflect new limitations on claims for defamation related to a termination letter as a result of Harris v. Brewer.
Updated to reflect new limitations on claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy as a result of Lane v. Forever of PA, Inc..
Updated to reflect new limitations on claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy as a result of Peine v. Hit Servs. L.P..
Updated to reflect new limitations on claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy as a result of Rollins v. Rollins Trucking.
Guidance for HR on the importance of the employment at-will doctrine.