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Can You Legally Refuse to Do Your Job?

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. | Last updated on

Recently, a Walgreen's employee refused to sell condoms to a couple because of his faith. Walgreen's stated their company policy allows employees to express religious exemptions. However, companies may not always support your choices.

If you do not want to do your job like that worker, your employer can fire you for insubordination. However, depending on your employment status, your employer can fire you anyway, even if you do your job.

'At-Will' Employment

"At-will" employment means your employer can fire you at any time and for any reason. At-will employment is the most common type of employment situation. An employer can fire you or eliminate your position as long as they are not doing it in an illegal or discriminatory manner.

Although they could fire you for any reason, an employer cannot fire you based on your race, gender, national origin, disability, religion, or age, or because you lawfully took time off or made complaints about sexual harassment or discrimination.

The flip side is that you can leave your job at any time. While giving an employer two weeks' notice is standard practice, it is not a legal requirement.

When You Have to Do Your Job

However, there are situations where you are legally bound to do your job or risk jail time or lawsuits.

You Are an Elected Official

As an elected official, you carry out your job's responsibilities or risk censure.

Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk Kim Davis made headlines in 2015 when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She claimed that despite the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, signing her name on those licenses was against her religious beliefs.

A judge cited her for civil contempt and sentenced her to five days of jail time. In the meantime, her five deputy clerks issued marriage licenses to legally eligible couples. When released, the judge instructed Davis not to interfere with the clerks issuing marriage licenses.

You Have an Employment Contract

If you have an employment contract or compensation agreement, you may have responsibilities and are bound to specific agreements.

Most employment contracts set forth provisions for:

  • Compensation: salary or wages
  • Work schedule: days or hours of work
  • Employment term: for a period of time or ongoing duration
  • Duties and responsibilities
  • Confidentiality agreement or a non-disclosure agreement
  • Benefits
  • Employee grievance procedures
  • Ownership of communications (i.e., emails) and intellectual property
  • Restrictions on future employment or non-compete agreement

For example, if you are a dentist working in a dental practice, there may be a restrictive covenant where you cannot practice dentistry in the same town for a set time. Courts look down upon non-compete agreements, so the contracts must be limited in scope.

You Can Refuse to Do Something Your Employer Asks if Hazardous, Illegal, or Unethical

If your supervisor gives you additional tasks, that is not grounds for a lawsuit. However, you can refuse to do a job when it is:


Under OSHA laws, you can refuse to work in dangerous conditions if:

  • You alert the employer to remove the hazardous condition and they refuse
  • You believe in good faith that there is an imminent danger
  • A reasonable person agrees that the threat of death or serious injury exists
  • You do not have time to go through proper channels, such as an OSHA inspection

Illegal or Unethical

You can refuse to do any illegal or unethical task. You have protection under whistleblower laws. A whistleblower is an employee who reports unethical or illegal activity. These laws protect the employee if the employer fires them, discriminates, or retaliates against them.

When to Resign and Find a Better Opportunity

If you disagree with your employer or find them acting immorally, your best bet is to find a better situation. You can resign and look for a new job or career change.

At least an Illinois nurse knew to resign after refusing to give conservative men Viagra. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, she posted on Twitter, "I prescribe meds...I can also choose not to prescribe them…So…from now on...if you are a white male who votes conservative, … ask God for the power to rise. No more Viagra."

When to Contact an Attorney

If your employer is discriminating against you, or you have questions about your employer's practices, contact an employment law attorney.

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