Employment Law

At-Will Employment

Many scholars trace the employment-at-will rule to a New York-based legal writer named Horace Gay Wood, who wrote in his treatise Master and Servant (1877): “[T]he rule is inflexible, that a general or indefinite hiring is prima facie a hiring at will, and if the servant seeks to make it out a yearly hiring, the burden is upon him to establish it by proof…. It is competent for either party to show what the mutual understanding of the parties was in reference to the matter; but unless their understanding was mutual that the service was to extend for a certain fixed and definite period, it is an indefinite hiring and is determinable at the will of either party.” Wood’s rule was that the burden was on the employee to show that the employment relationship was not governed by the employment-at-will relationship.

Wood’s statement of the employment-at-will doctrine became the norm in laws throughout the states, as various state high courts cited Wood’s treatise in adopting the doctrine. By the end of the 1930s, nearly every state had accepted the employment-at-will doctrine as the default rule in the employment setting.


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