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Exceptions to At-Will Employment

By Caleb Groos | Last updated on

These days many businesses and employees anguish over job losses. Many employees have been forced to learn the hard way what at-will employment means. For most, at-will employment has become the rule. To best prepare for worst-case scenarios, employers and their employees should also understand the exceptions to at-will employment.

At-will employment means that both the employer and the employee are entitled to end the employment relationship at any time.

These days, most employees are at-will employees. Generally, an employer may fire such employee for any reason or no reason. Employees are not at-will employees if there is an employment agreement in place specifying otherwise.

Additionally, for at-will employees, there are some exceptions to the gereral rule. These include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Public Policy. Under the law of most states, an employer cannot terminate an employee in violation of a well-established public policy of the state. For example, an employer generally may not fire an employee for making a worker's compensation claim, as the policy of requiring employers to pay worker's compensation is clearly established by state statute. Firing someone for reporting illegal activity also violates public policy.
  2. Discrimination or retaliation. Under federal law, an employer may not discriminate in the termination of employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability. Many states and municipalities also prohibit terminating employees based on other factors, such as sexual orientation. Employers also may not fire an employee in retaliation for making a complaint about discrimination or harrassment.
  3. Implied Contract. Sometimes, the words or conduct of the employer can create an implied agreement that limits the employer's ability to terminate employees at will. For example, when an employer's employee handbook states that employees will only be terminated for just cause, many courts have held that this amounts to an agreement to terminate employees only for cause.
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