Employment-At-Will Doctrine

At Will Employment Doctrine



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Introduction to the Employment-At-Will Doctrine

The employment-at will doctrine is a concept born in the 19th century American law, and it states that the unless the employment parties (employer and employee) agree expressively on a duration of employment, then each one of them could choose to end the relationship at any time with or without any reason and whether the reason is good enough or not (Cihon & Castagnera, 1999). This is done without the risk of a lawsuit against any party that is a victim. The employer can decide to fire an employee at any time, and the employee can as well decide to quit at any time with or without any good reason, because it is recognized by the law. Since then, this doctrine has been the most common type of employment, and almost all the states of the United States. The American courts however narrowed down this doctrine by coming up with several exceptions which principally, address terminations that do not seem just, although technically are in compliance with the requirements of the employment-at-will concept

According to Cihon & Castagnera (1999) one of the common-law developed to protect employees against wrongful discharge is the rule of implied-contract which basically holds that although an employer and an employee may not have expressively entered into a contract by for example putting it in paper, the two may be bound to a contract-like relationships based on what may imply as such. These may include employers’ policy concerning the firing of employee, and other presentations by the employer to the employee regarding the same. Another important exception, and perhaps the most common one is the public policy exception. As stated by Cihon & Castagnera (1999), this exception states that the employer cannot fire an employee if that action is in contravention of an explicit policy that is established by the state. An example would be if when an employer fires an employee who was absent from work because they were sick, or for other reasons beyond their control, or when an employee gets fired for refusing to break the law at the request of the employer. Under such circumstances, a legal action can be taken against the employer. One more exception would be the good faith and fair dealing exception. This doctrine maybe one of the least popular exceptions, where it looks more at the intentions of the employer when firing an employee. It states that an employer will not fire an employee for malicious reasons, e.g. firing an employee to evade paying due commissions.

The above exceptions however are not fully implemented in all the U.S states, as some states may only implement others and leave out others. They are useful when the employer has to make a decision about firing an employee, for any reason or no reason at all.

Application to the scenarios

In scenario 1, I would fire John without thinking twice about it. This is because his actions may be jeopardizing the business relationship the company has with its clients. At a time where the organization is about to launch an initial public offer, the least the company may want is to tarnish our name to the clients and potential investors. Further, this could affect the company’s future profits, the most important customer may be to some extent influential to other customers, and you might not know who the next victim of John’s criticism might be. This decision has surpassed the requirements of the employment-at-will doctrine, that even though it might be done without any reason at all, this is a very good reason for us. The exceptions are well taken care of, because the to begin with, it does not go against the public policy exception, since what he did is malicious and not good for the organization. Any organization has rules and regulations to follow, and by any organization’s standards, this is a serious offence that warrants a decisive action. Finally, the good faith and fair dealing exception is also considered when coming up with the decision. This is because as the operating officer, it is clear in my mind that the decision is not made out of bad faith, because it is based on the specific employees’ unacceptable behavior that is not healthy for the organization. This decision is informed by ethical egoism, which is a more consequentialist approach and it states that an action is good if it produces and is geared towards the good of self, in the words of Malachowski (2001).

In the 6th scenario, I will decline to approve the firing of the secretary whose department supervisor wants to fire. The biggest reason is that the company would want to retain a good reputation for treating their employees well, since it is clear that the supervisor is not just, and by approving the firing, I would be infected by the vice and ultimately the reputation of the organization will be at risk. This is further backed by the exception that state that employee dismissal would be deemed unlawful if the employee declined to commit an illegality, as in this context (public policy exception). This is because an inquiry into the matter clearly reveals that the secretary refused to prepare false expense reports, and on the flipside, I may recommend to the HR department to fire the supervisor. Firing the secretary will also subject us to the risk of a legal suit against us, which we may lose based on the circumstances. Here, act utilitarianism is the ethical theory that best supports this decision, since it that which states that actions should be made in consideration of everyone’s happiness Malachowski (2001), where in the scenario both the company’s happiness as well as the secretary’s are considered.

In the last scenario, finally, Anna is at risk of being dismissed unfairly. Her boss wants to sack her for being absent because she was on jury duty. This will be deemed an unfair practice, mainly because jury duty is every citizen’s duty, and no dismissal should be based on that. This is supported by the public policy exception, and sacking Anna will be an explicit contravention of the common law. As the Chief operating officer, I might present the case to the relevant department like the Human resource management, since I wouldn’t want to be seen as being a busy body. This is because I believe that firing Anna will be inherently wrong, since she didn’t do wrong, and on the contrary, she was performing her duties as required by law. This is because we are obligated to act in a way that would be considered ethical if everyone acted that way. Ethical decisions and considerations should be made according to reason and duty, as the categorical imperative theory states (Paton, 1971).

South Carolina is an at will state, meaning that the employee-employer relationship can be terminated by either party for whatever reason. All the exceptions apply, except the good faith/fair dealing covenant. Basically, the Southern Carolina law does not care about the intentionality of the employer while terminating employment. It is one of them many states in the U.S that are yet to recognize this covenant as an exception to the at-will doctrine.

In 2013, the state of Virginia’s Supreme Court expanded the wrongful discharge liability to action taken by the employer. In a landmark case of Van Buren v. Grubb, where The Virginia Supreme Court maintained that a non-employer can and may be sued for wrongful discharge if they are in fact they are individually the violators of Virginia public policy. This saw the public policy exception from at will employment being recognized for the first time in the state of Virginia. The lawsuit was placed by a lady who alleged that she was a victim of gender discrimination (in violation of the civil rights) and that she had been discharged for not giving in to her bosses’ sexual advances. The woman had sued Dr. Stephen Grubb, who owned the company that had employed the lady, Virginia Limited Liability Corporation. At first, the district court had dismissed the case by Van Buren, on the grounds that Dr. Grubb was not the lady’s employer. On appealing however, she won the case and the Supreme Court rejected Dr. Grubb’s reasoning that by definition, discharge can be done only by an employer, and that only the employer can be held liable. The court therefore stated that the situation qualifies to be a wrongful discharge, even by the fact that a violation of the public policy was committed by a non-employer.


Cihon, P., & Castagnera, J. (1999). Employment and labor law (3rd ed.). Cincinnati, Ohio: West

Educational Pub.

Malachowski, A. (2001). Business ethics: Critical perspectives on business and management

(Vol. 1). London: Routledge.

Paton, H. (1971). The categorical imperative: A study in Kant’s moral philosophy. Philadelphia:

University of Pennsylvania Press

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