Exceptions to Employment at Will

When Companies Cannot Fire Employees or Change Employment Terms

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Can employers fire someone without a good reason? The employment at will doctrine allows employers to terminate some employees without having to give a reason.

Most U.S. workers are covered under the provisions of employment at will, meaning that they can be discharged for any reason – or no reason at all – without cause or notice, as the employer sees fit. Employment at will also means that employers can change the terms of employment unless employees are covered by any of the exceptions referenced below.

These exceptions to employment at will provide legal protections for workers who are covered by state and federal law, collective bargaining agreements, contracts, public policy, and other circumstances and situations where employee rights are protected. If you’re concerned about having your employment terminated, it’s a good idea to determine whether any of these exceptions apply.

What Employers Can Do Under Employment at Will

Some of the things that employers can do under employment at will include terminating employment, reducing wages, changing employee-benefits coverage, limiting hours worked or changing an employee’s job content and work schedule. Having formal job descriptions does not restrict employers from assigning duties not incorporated into job descriptions or from changing an individual’s work responsibilities.

Exceptions to Employment at Will

Not all employees or all situations are subject to the provisions of employment at will. Often, when you accept a job offer, your agreement will state whether you’re an employee-at-will, or covered under another type of contract. The job offer letter you receive (or the company employee handbook) may stipulate that you must acknowledge that you are employed at will.

The following are circumstances where employment at will may not apply:

Collective Bargaining Agreements
Employees covered by union or association agreements often have contractual provisions that stipulate when and how an employee can be fired. For example, the agreement may state that employees may only have their employment terminated for cause. Unions usually have a well-defined appeals process as a recourse for members who believe that they have been wrongly discharged.

Company Policy
Company policy may detail when and how employment can be terminated, and whether warnings need to be provided to employees at risk of termination. In most cases, the employer will follow the guidelines established in the policy when terminating employees.

Individual Employment Contracts
Workers in some industries and at some organizations have employment contracts that outline the terms of employment and conditions for discharge. The employer must follow the terms of the agreement and may otherwise be subject to a wrongful termination action.

Public Policy
Most states recognize that certain public policy guidelines limit the exercise of employment at will by employers. For example, employers are prohibited from firing employees who have filed claims for workers compensation, workers who have reported legal transgressions by their employer, or employees who refuse to violate laws as they carry out their duties. Public policy guidelines also protect workers engaging in acts that are in the public interest, such as serving in the military reserve or on a jury.

Statutory Protections for Employees

Employees cannot be fired for discriminatory reasons. State and federal laws protect employees from being discriminated against in hiring or firing. Categories of protection include race, national origin, gender, age, religion, pregnancy, family status, veteran status, disability, ethnicity and sexual orientation (in some states).

Well-defined company policies on termination clearly outlined in employment manuals, provide protection for some employees. Verbal assertions by management that employees will not be fired without just cause may also hold up in a few instances, though these are often hard to prove.

Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing Exception

Eleven states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Delaware, Idaho, Massachusetts, Nevada, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming) consider exceptions to employment at will based on the broad principles of good faith and just cause. Employees in these states can put forward lawsuits if they believe that their termination was not justified.

Some courts have interpreted this to mean that terminations must be for "just cause" and can’t be "made in bad faith or motivated by malice" as per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many Employers Are Still Influenced by the Opinion of Employees

Even when employers might legally be permitted to exercise employment at will, many organizations will provide recourse to employees who believe that they have been treated unjustly. It only makes sense: employers who develop a reputation for treating employees unfairly will have difficulty attracting and retaining top performers.

Not sure how this may impact your circumstances? Consult company policy and contact your human resources department if you believe the terms of your employment have been unfairly altered. It’s in the best interests of your employer to maintain a good relationship with you, even if their requirements have evolved from the original terms of your employment.

Have a Question?

Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions about termination from employment, including reasons for getting fired, employee rights when your employment has been terminated, collecting unemploymentwrongful termination, saying goodbye to co-workers and more. If you’ve recently had your employment terminated and have concerns about the process or what happens next, this is the place to look.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. 

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. AFLCIO.org. "Collective Bargaining," Accessed Oct. 27, 2019.

  2. NCSL.org. "At-Will Employment - Overview," Accessed Oct. 27, 2019.

  3. NCSL.org. "Employment At-Will Exceptions by State," Accessed Oct. 27, 2019.

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