Rules for Employee Termination in the US

In the United States, the employment-at-will or employment-at-will doctrine refers to an employment relationship between an employer and an employee, whereby either party may terminate the relationship without notice, at any time and for any reason not prohibited by law. This is one of the few countries where employment is predominantly at-will. Most countries in the world allow employers to fire employees only for good cause. At will means that an employer can fire an employee at any time and for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason at all without incurring legal liability.

Similarly, an employee is free to leave their job at any time, for any reason or without it, without adverse legal consequences. Presumption at will is a default rule that can be modified by contract. Collective bargaining agreements generally stipulate that employees represented can only be fired for good cause. The cause generally includes reasons such as poor employee performance, employee misconduct, or financial need.

An employment contract can specifically describe the situations or actions of employees that would lead to a dismissal for good cause. Over the years, courts have established exceptions to voluntary presumption to mitigate its consequences, sometimes serious. The three main exceptions to common law are public policy, the implied contract, and the implicit good-faith pact. The most widely recognized customary legal exception to voluntary presumption protects employees against adverse employment actions that violate the public interest.

This common law exception is similar to and may overlap with the retaliation exception described below. Some courts have refused to recognize an independent public policy grievance when a legal remedy is available. A minority of states recognize an implicit pact of good faith and fair treatment in labor relations. Judicial interpretations of this pact have varied, from requiring just cause for termination to prohibiting terminations made in bad faith or motivated by malice.

Examples of bad faith dismissals include firing an older employee to avoid paying retirement benefits, or firing a salesperson just before a large commission is paid for a completed sale. In addition to the common law exceptions described above, there are also several legal exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine. Federal and state anti-discrimination laws prohibit employers from basing employment decisions on the employee's race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or veteran status. State-specific laws can also protect employees from discrimination based on other factors, such as sexual orientation.

Some states have enacted laws to protect employees from adverse workplace actions that result from legal off-duty activities. In Colorado, CRS § 24-34-402.5 was originally known as the Smoker's Rights Act, but it actually protects any legal off-duty activity that takes place outside the employer's premises. North Dakota adopted an equally broad statute. Legislation enacted in other states may provide additional protection for employees who engage in certain activities outside of work.

Cornelius Maxon
Cornelius Maxon

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