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Dismissal and employment at will?

Employment at will is the doctrine governing worker-employer relations in the United States. It states that your employer has the right to dismiss you for any reason or no reason at all, including reasons that may seem "unjust" or "unfair", and that you have the right to leave your job for any reason or no reason at all without giving notice.

If you do no have an employment contract that specifies the exact amount of time that you are to be employed and the conditions under which you can be dismissed, you are considered an "at will employee" and the above applies to you.

There are several limitations to this doctrine depending upon the state in which you live, federal laws and whether you are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. These are discussed below.

What is an "at will employee"?

In the United States, employees can be broadly classified into two categories:

(1) at will employees and (2) just cause employees.

An "at will employee" is one that can be fired for any reason or no reason at all and can leave his/her job at any time without giving notice.

A "just cause" employee, on the other hand, can only be dismissed for not performing their job duties correctly or other non-arbitrary reasons relating to violations of workplace conduct or policy.

What are the limitations of employment at will?

Employment at will is limited by a great deal of case law that has developed since its creation in 1908. The limitations are:

  • Contracts
If you have a contract with your employer stating a time period for which you are to work and stipulating, in detail, under what conditions you are to remain employed or dismissed, then you are not considered an at will employee and can only be dismissed under the conditions stated in your contract.

  • Membership of an Union
Union members are not at will employees. If you are a member of a labor union, then most likely you are covered by a collective bargaining agreement that was negotiation between your employer and your union representatives.

Collective bargaining agreements generally have provisions allowing for dismissal only for just cause and also allowing for employee grievance procedures in the case that the employee and the employer disagree over a dismissal.

Exceptions employment at will

Discrimination

Due to anti-discrimination legislation passed by Congress in the late 1960's and 1970's, it had become illegal to terminate anyone on the basis of race, gender, religion, color, national origin and disability. These are the most important anti-discrimination limitations on employment at will, but there are many more.

The public-policy exception

Under the public policy exception an employee would be considered “wrongfully discharged” if their firing contravened some explicit well established public policy of the state in which they work. Below are some examples of dismissals under the public policy exception:

  • Getting fired for filing a workers compensation claim after being injured on the job;
  • Refusal to break the law at the request of the employer
The Implied Contract Exception

Even if you do not have a formal employment contract many employers have stated policies, either orally or in writing, regulating dismissals in the workplace and other rules.

These implied contracts are recognized in 38 states and usually take the form of employee handbooks guaranteeing that employees will be terminated only for “just cause” or for non-arbitrary reasons.

If you live in one of these 38 states and you have an employee handbook that outlines procedures for termination of employment then you may not be an at will employee.

Find out if you are in one of the 38 states covered by the implied contract exception.

The Covenant-of-Good-Faith Exception

This exception is recognized by only 11 states and, at its broadest, is understood as meaning that in every employment relationship, there is the understanding employees should be terminated for “just cause.” More specifically, that employees should not be fired because of malice  or other arbitrary reasons.

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