Employment-At-Will Doctrine and Exceptions

Laura Foist, Shawn Grimsley
  • Author
    Laura Foist

    Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

  • Instructor
    Shawn Grimsley

    Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Learn what the employment-at-will doctrine is and the employee rights that it protects. Discover three exceptions to employment-at-will and participating states. Updated: 04/15/2022

Table of Contents


What Is the Employment-At-Will Doctrine?

The employment-at-will doctrine is the idea that employees don't have any set period to work for a specific company. Employment can end at any time and be terminated by either the employer or employee. In this sense what at-will means is that employment continues at the will (or the desire) of both the employer and the employee. In many places, it is the law that all employment is at-will. This protects both the employer and employee. If an employer no longer needs an employee, they can terminate the employment relationship. On the other hand, this doctrine also includes at-will employee rights; if an employee no longer wants to work for a certain company, they can also leave whenever they want.

There are pros and cons to at-will employment. Many argue that it primarily protects employees, while others argue that it primarily protects companies. There are also exceptions to the at-will employment; generally, employers cannot fire someone for illegal reasons.

For example, with at-will employment, Mary starts a job as an IT analyst at a new company. She can decide to terminate employment at any moment. While it is customary to leave a two-week notice for many positions, even a two-week notice is not required for at-will employment. If Mary finds a better job or simply decides she doesn't want to keep working at this company, she can end her employment that same day. Giving a two-week notice may help Mary to secure a good reference from this company, but she has no legal requirement to give any notice.

On the flip side, at-will employment also gives flexibility to the employer. The company that Mary is working for can decide Mary's employment at the company is not working out. They do not need to give any specific reason for firing Mary; it could be due to budget cuts, performance issues, or simply character conflicts. It is typically the best policy to document issues so that if Mary feels as though she was let go for illegal reasons, and takes the company to court, the company has evidence of their reasons for firing Mary. But having a reason is not required. It just helps protect the company.

With at-will employment, the company also has additional flexibility. There is no assurance that the company needs to keep Mary on for any specific schedule or pay. The company can change Mary's schedule, pay, or job duties at any time (the company simply needs to let Mary know about the changes before the work is performed). If Mary does not like the changes, she is free to leave the company.

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  • 0:01 Employment-At-Will Defined
  • 2:25 Contract Exception
  • 3:20 Implied Covenant Exception
  • 4:26 Public Policy Exception
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Employment-At-Will Exceptions

There are a few employment-at-will exceptions. These are grouped into three main categories:

  • Public policy
  • Contracts
  • Covenant of good faith

The public policy exception to employment-at-will includes protecting employees from being fired for refusing to do something illegal or for reporting a company for doing something illegal (such as putting illegal ingredients into a food product). It also protects employees who participate in activities that are in the public interest (such as doing jury duty).

The contract exception can include written contracts or implied contracts. A contract can remove the at-will status of a company. This often requires companies to prove the reason they let an employee go. This reason is often defined as economic, poor performance, or employee misconduct. A contract can also bind an employee to a company, requiring them to complete a specific job before leaving the company. Contracts binding employees are often a lot more legally flexible than contracts binding employers. Implied contracts can include oral or written implications. Oral implications can be management stating something such as, ''You've got a job for life''. While courts tend to dismiss promises of jobs for life, frequent statements such as this could help a suddenly dismissed employee show there was an oral contractual expectation that employment would continue for longer than it was given. Written implied contracts would include language in employee handbooks that describe the process of giving employees a chance to correct mistakes before being fired.

Only a small handful of states include security under the covenant of good faith. This exception protects employees from being fired for reasons of malice, such as firing someone shortly before they can retire to prevent the company from needing to pay retirement benefits.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the pros of the employment-at-will doctrine?

Employment-at-will allows an employee to leave a job without any form of notice, for any reason, at any time. It also allows companies to reliably have employees that fit their needs.

What is the employment-at-will doctrine in HRM?

Employment-at-will means that a company can fire an employee at any time for any reason (except for illegal reasons) and that employees can quit at any time, for any reason, with no notice. Many company handbooks put additional guidelines in place which limit the at-will ability for a company to fire employees.

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