Can I Be Fired? Can I Quit? Understanding the Employment at Will Doctrine

In the absence of a formal contract that governs your working relationship with your employer, you are considered an employee at will. Many Americans are employees at will and it is, therefore, important for both employees and employers to understand the concept and a worker’s rights under this work arrangement.
 

What is Employment At Will?

Unless there is a contract or a collective bargaining agreement that expressly states the employment terms, an employee is an employee at will.   That means that an employer may terminate the employee’s job with or without good cause and that the employee may quit his job for any reason.

Supporters of the employment at will doctrine argue that it promotes efficiency in the workplace. In order for a business to achieve its greatest potential, the employer and the employee must be productive and successful. It is important that the employer and the employee work well together. The doctrine recognizes that sometimes an employee and an employer do not work well together even though there is no tangible reason for the unproductive working relationship. Therefore, the doctrine allows either party to leave the relationship for any reason rather than be locked into an arrangement that is not working.
 

Exceptions to the Employment at Will Doctrine

Each state creates its own exceptions to the employment at will doctrine. There are some exceptions that have widespread agreement among the states and other exceptions where there is less agreement.
 
One exception upon which most states agree is the public policy exception to the employment at will doctrine. Forty eight states and the District of Columbia have created a public policy exception to the employment at will doctrine that prohibits an employer from firing an employee for reasons that violate the state’s public policy or a state or federal statute. For example, it would be illegal for an employer in these states to fire an employee because he is a member of a protected race or for complying with a state or federal whistleblower law.
 
Another exception that is recognized in more than one half of the states is the implied contract exception. This means that an employer may not fire an employee if there is an implied contract between the two parties, even if a formal written contract does not exist. This exception can be difficult to prove and it is the burden of the fired employee to prove that there was an implied contract between the parties.
 
While many employees assume that there is some kind of covenant of good faith that should be involved when dealing with an employee’s termination, only a handful of states have recognized that such a covenant exists. Most state courts have found that implying a standard of good faith or fair dealing would fundamentally change the employment at will doctrine.
 
Losing a job can be a frightening experience that requires an employee to make fundamental changes in his or her life. Similarly, accepting the resignation of a valued employee can be difficult for an employer. Therefore, it is important that both parties understand all of the laws that surround their employment relationship.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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