Employment-at-Will Doctrine

Free «Employment-at-Will Doctrine» Essay Sample


Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “See that thou work and canst not escape the reward.” However, according to the United States Common Law, the employment-at-will rule states that employment contracts of the indefinite period are terminable at the will of either employer or employee at any time for no reason. Since one chooses to become employed freely, the employer neither requires a reason to terminate employment, nor do the employees need to justify resigning (Prescott & Rothwell, 2012). In the 1950s, following rising pressure from disgruntled employees who won wrongful termination cases, some major exceptions were introduced to the employment-at-will rule.

Public Policy Exception

As an employee protection measure against malicious chiefs, it is a wrongful termination in most states to fire a worker against an explicit and already well-established public policy doctrine or a state or federal statute. In Clanton v. Cain-Sloan Co, the plaintiff was an at-will employee who lost her employment the day after the settlement of her worker’s compensation claim after injury on the job. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor arguing that such action is necessary to protect workers. Following this exception, it is also unlawful to retaliate against an employee in any way for complying with the public policy.

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Statutory Exceptions

Most U.S. states have set statutory protections for their citizens, but most wrongful termination suits use federal anti-discrimination statutes that outlaw the firing or refusal to hire based on religion, sex, age or handicap status. More reasons for refusing to commit an illegal act, medical and family leaves are under this exception.

Implied Contract Exception

Under this rule, an employer cannot fire a worker if an implied contract forms between them with or without an expressed, written instrument regarding the employment. However, the burden of proving an implied contract lies with the estranged employee (Hudson, 2010). One can find these implied employment policies in personnel handbooks that specify the process and allowed causes for firing. However, much controversy and criticism has surrounded the at-will-employment doctrine with most researchers and critics citing its severe bias and harshness towards employees. On a positive note, at-will employment is responsible for Silicon Valley’s entrepreneur-friendly business environment.

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Case Study

In the scenario six where Anna’s supervisor refuses to confirm her leave request and threatens to fire her, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) starts by apologizing to Anna for the mistreatment, as the law requires her to fulfill her jury duty. The COO would also ensure that the manager is reprimanded for the negligence of statutes since a person in his position should be aware of the law and, in particular, public-policy exception to the at-will employment rule (Petermann v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters).

The secretary in the scenario 5 has a proven record of accomplishment and is an asset to the company. Thus, it would be a loss to fire her, especially if the reason for firing is doing her job right and refusing to engage in illegal activities. In this case, the public policy exception rule will be a rationale for her from job loss (Palmateer v. International Harvester Company). Nevertheless, the manager deserves firing to set an example to fellow managers against engaging in corrupt activities that lower the company’s overall output. With the Initial Public Offer days away, investors need an assurance on the security and profitability of their investment.

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As the COO, one would fire the employee in case 4 based on the fact that he is the wrong-doer who tries to hide behind the privacy laws while still engaging in the acts likely to be of detrimental effects for the organization. Loss of customers from such cases is liable to have a huge impact over time since no one likes to be criticized, especially not when he or she is paying for it. Failure to correct such actions will lead to direct losses because the customer is still part of the public that we are offering shares.

State of Colorado Policies on Employment-at-Will

In the state of Colorado, just as it is in most states, all mannerisms of employment are at-will employments in the absence of a contract explicitly stating otherwise (Moffatt, 2011). Therefore, both employer and employee have every right to terminate the employment at any time and without cause with none of them bearing any legal repercussions. The courts in Colorado have however recognized the need to maintain a balance of interests between worker and boss to create a business-friendly environment. Various civil rights laws are in place to prohibit all forms of discrimination or wrongful treatment control of the discretion to hire and fire employees at-will.

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Colorado courts recognize the public policy exception as one of the balances necessary to protect the interest of both employer and employee (Goldman & Corrada, 2011). The exception creates an even legal playground as statutory laws binding both parties. The Colorado courts recognize both legal and implied contracts, as well as other employment laws put in place to protect employees from discrimination by notorious top executives who might want to exploit their workforce. Colorado paints a picture of good balance between the management of mutual employer and employee benefits, using different legislation to monitor the lawbreakers.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Colorado held that an employer is justified for firing an employee for engaging in illegal off-duty activities. In Coats v. Dish Network, the defendant fired Brandon Coats for failing a routine company drug test, after he tested positive for THC. Coats sued for wrongful termination, arguing that, according to Colorado’s “Lawful Activities Statute,” it was illegal to discharge an employee for engaging in “lawful” off-duty conduct. Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Amendment allowed Coats the use of medical marijuana, as he was a paraplegic.

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However, the Supreme Court held that medical marijuana was illegal under the federal law, and hence, the Dish network had not violated the Lawful Activity Statute. The Federal Controlled Substances Act illegalizes the possession, use, and manufacture of medical marijuana making it unlawful under the federal law. The Supreme Court went with the plain meaning of the word “lawful” to be “that which is forbidden by law”. The ruling, in this case, is only binding in Colorado, as it is one of the states with legislation to protect lawful off-duty conduct, and it sets a precedent for other similar litigations that involve medical marijuana use and employment (Hart, 2015). In this case, albeit the medical need for marijuana use, Coats exceptions to the at-will employment statute cannot protect Coats since his off-duty conduct was illegal in the context of the federal law.


Employers may still have the upper hand with the employment-at-will doctrine since they are supported by resources to protect themselves. At the same time, the increase in legislation regulating the abuse of said powers has proven so far to be an effective tool. Disgruntled employees in Colorado and other states should be careful and be well aware about the exceptions applicable in aforementioned scenarios as the court system is at the forefront of protecting their rights and interests but only under the law. Employers have a legal right to offer everyone an equal opportunity when hiring and firing.

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