Employment Law

At-Will Employment

What legal doctrine still provides the baseline rule that employees have little protection in the employment relationship in the United States?

Many workers must accept the fact that they are “at-will” employees subject to the employment-at-will doctrine. This doctrine provides that either the employer or employee can end the employment relationship at will—even for a seemingly unfair reason. The Tennessee Supreme Court explained the doctrine in Payne v. Western & Atlantic R. Co. (1884): “All may dismiss their employees at will, be they many or few, for good cause, for no cause or even for cause morally wrong without being thereby guilty of legal wrong.” Under the employment-at-will doctrine, an employer can dismiss an employee for a good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. The reasoning behind the rule is that because an employee can leave the employment relationship at any time, the employer should have the same right to terminate the relationship at will. Unfortunately, the rule does not take into consideration the power disparity between most employers and employees. An employer often can easily replace an employee, while an employee often has a much more difficult time finding a comparable job.

Much of current employment law deals with whether various exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine apply. For example, employers (with a certain number of employees) cannot fire workers for certain discriminatory reasons—because of the employees’ race, sex, or religion. There also have developed many so-called public policy exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine. Common public policy exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine are that employers may not fire workers for serving on a jury, exposing illegal activities by the employer in the workplace, filing a workers’ compensation claim, or having your wages garnished.


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