An Introduction to the Employment-at-Will Doctrine

Subject: Law
Pages: 5
Words: 1204
Reading time:
5 min
Study level: College

Doctrine of at-will employment

Invented by Horace Wood in his 1877 “Master and Servant” treatise on legal law, the employment-at-will doctrine is a unique legal term or concept in the American employer-employee relationship that is also controversial. According to Covey (2000), the employment-at-will doctrine applies to the contractual employment relationships in which the employment terms can be terminated by the employer or the employee for any reason. It gives both parties the right to terminate their work relationship at any time and without warning or even reason. Both parties have the right to terminate the employment with no need of establishing the “just cause” of the action.

The American labor law recognizes this concept even though it has been highly criticized. For instance, Epstein (2004) states that the American courts deny employees any claim for a loss that results from the dismissal when there is adequate evidence that the employer-employee contract was based on the doctrine of at-will employment. Nevertheless, the courts do not deny the employers any claim for loss resulting from an employee’s sudden and unexpected abandonment of his or her duties at the workplace (Rudy, 2002). Therefore, the legal practice is considered unjust because it is characterized by the inequity of bargaining power, where the employers’ bargaining power is higher than that of the employees.

Critics argue that this method justifies the acts of discrimination and oppression at the workplace (Cihon & Castagnera, 2011). An important aspect to consider is that the doctrine was part of the efforts of the economists and the US judiciary in the 19th century when preventing the government from regulating and controlling labor markets and the economy in general. According to Cihon and Castagnera (2011), the doctrine was a part of the efforts by the corporate world to justify and implement capitalism in the US.

In the 20th century, many exceptions have increasingly been added, and several changes made to the doctrine. For instance, the concept of “just cause” has been added in the public sector employment as the normal standard for dismissal, which requires employers to establish the cause of terminating an employment contract and notify the affected employee before the termination (Cihon & Castagnera, 2011).

In addition, it gives the employees the right to challenge the termination in court by claiming loss resulting from the termination, especially if the “just cause” is not satisfying (Cihon & Castagnera, 2011). In addition, in the private labor market and other workplaces with trade unions, the concept of collective bargaining has been added to mitigate the likelihood of employees being fired for no reason and at any time (Joel, 2003). It provides employees the right to have some bargaining power in the employment contract and ensure that employer does not violate the employment rights of their employees (Cihon & Castagnera, 2011).

The cases of Bill, Joe, and Anna are should be analyzed in consideration of the employment-at-will doctrine (before its reviewed) and the pertinent exceptions included in the doctrine since 1900. The purpose of the analysis is to determine whether firing each of the three employees meets the standards of the doctrine and whether they can challenge the decision of firing them successfully in a court if allowed to include the pertinent exceptions to the doctrine.

When considering firing Bill, it is important to consider the nature of his action and the impact it has on the company. First, the doctrine of employment-at-will gives the company the right to terminate the employment contract for Bill if it is based on such a contract. Secondly, it is important to note that at-will employment is described as any form of hiring that is presumably “at will”, where the company has the freedom and the right to discharge the individual for “bad or good cause or no cause” and the employee has equal rights to quit, cease working or strike at his will. In addition, it is important to note that the Supreme Court of California expanded the doctrine by explaining that the employer does not need to provide specific protections like a warning or fair procedures (Park, 2003).

Thirdly, the nature of Bill’s action proves that he has violated the employment law. First, he is running a side business using the company’s assets without the approval of the relevant authorities. Secondly, he has involved himself in an action that is likely to cause a conflict of interest by running his own business using the company’s assets as his own. Therefore, there is adequate reason to fire Bill at the company’s will without warning.

Although the doctrine does not require the company to show the “just cause” of Bill’s discharge, it is important to consider the pertinent exclusions to the concept. For instance, Bill does not have adequate evidence to prove that the company did not provide “just cause” because the record of his activities is available. Secondly, under the Civil Rights Act, his firing is not based on any form of his physical, mental, or other characteristics but purely on his actions that violate the company’s rules and regulations.

A similar case applies to the termination of Joe’s employment contract. The company might have violated Joe’s right to privacy. However, the nature of his action proves that he had used the company’s assets to criticize its customers, which is likely to cause detrimental loss to the company. As such, it is clear that the company has the right to terminate its contract at its will based on the doctrine of at-will employment. In addition, the company has a justifiable “just cause” of firing Joe simply because he uses the company’s assets to cause a significant loss.

On the other hand, under the doctrine of at-will employment, the company has the right to fire Anna for her action. Under the initial doctrine (before exceptions), Anna has no grounds to challenge the company’s decision or claim for any loss she is likely to incur due to her termination. However, under the exceptions of collective Public Policy, Anna has exercised a statutory right by filing a claim under the law on state workers’ compensation (Park, 2003).

In addition, the company’s “just cause” is not satisfactory because it denied her the right to seek counsel and she took the action as the last option. Therefore, the company’s ability to defend Ann’s absence from the workplace as the “just cause” is likely to be challenged. Thus, I would not consider firing Anne.

Texas exception policy on at-will employment doctrine

The judicial system in the Texas is one of the systems that have recognized the implied contract as an exception to the doctrine. In this case, an implied contract is an exception to the doctrine that prohibits an employer from firing an employee when the two parties have formed an implied contract through a written instrument regarding the relationship (Cihon & Castagnera, 2011). However, it is worth noting that my state does not consider the requirement of employee records specifying the reason for termination as a medication of the at-will employment doctrine as indicated in Matagorda County Hospital District v. Burwell (Cihon & Castagnera, 2011). Since then, Matagorda County is an example of the institutions (employers) that have been using this exception in its employer-employee contracts.


Cihon, P., & Castagnera, J. (2011). Employment and Labor Law. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

Covey, A. (2000). Workplace law advisor: From harassment and discrimination policies to hiring and firing guidelines- what every manager and employee needs to know. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Epstein, R. (2004). In Defense of the Contract at Will. University of Chicago Law Review 57(1), 947-954.

Joel, L. G. (2003). Every employee’s guide to the law: Everything you need to know about your rights in the workplace and what to do if they are violated. New York: Pantheon.

Park, S. S. (2003). Working towards freedom from abuse: recognizing a ‘public policy’ exception to employment-at-will for domestic violence victims. New York University Annual Survey of American Law 59(4), 121–62.

Rudy, J. (2002). What they do not know won’t hurt them: Defending Employment-At-Will in light of findings that employees believethey possess just cause protection. Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 23(3), 307-309.