Virtually all the states in the United States are governed by the employment-at-will doctrine. In legal terms, this means that either the employee or the employer can terminate the employment for any reason whatsoever (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2014). This particular doctrine affirms that in the absence of a written employment contract and in cases whereby there is no specific duration of the terms of employment, then the employer has the discretion to terminate the services of the employee for bad cause, good causes, or even for no cause at all (Glynn, Arnow-Richman & Sullivan, 2007). The premise of the current essay is to explore the employment-at-will doctrine in regards to three of the six scenarios provided for this assignment. Besides providing a summary of the employment-at-will doctrine, the essay shall also endeavor to explore if an employer can legally terminate an employee, including an examination of possible exceptions to the employment-at-will policy. The essay will also explore the key actions that the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the midsized company mentioned in this case should take in a bid to minimize the effects on operations. Besides exploring the implementation of the employment at will doctrine in the state of California, the essay will also provide a real-world example where the employment-at-will doctrine as practiced in the state of California has been applied over the past five years.
Summary of the employment-at-will Doctrine and exceptions
This particular policy takes the supposition that either the employee or employer can decide to terminate employment that does not have a defined timeline. Courts have employed this particular historical perspective while interpreting employer-employee relationships. Taking into account the fact that employers and employees share unequal bargaining powers, this doctrine has been heavily criticized by a number of critics who have relied on unions to ensure equal bargaining power of employees, to afford employees job security, and other additional benefits (Glynn et al., 2007).
There are however, exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine in the United States. For example, terminating an employee against a well-established and clear public policy is deemed as wrongful dismissal (Muhl, 2001). For instance, most States are against the termination of an employee by an employer for filing a claim for worker compensation following an injury sustained on the job, or if they decline to break the law after the employer has requested them to do so. 43 States in the U.S. recognize this particular exception to the employment-at-will policy, including the State of California.
The other exception to this doctrine occurs if both the employee and employer share an implied contract even as they lack a written, express instrument on their relationship of employment. Despite the lack of a contract to govern employment, an employer could submit written or oral representations to employees on the issues of procedures that the job entails and job security in case of undesirable employment actions (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2014). The state of California is among the 38 States that have recognized this exception.
The covenant of good faith is the third exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. So far, only 11 States (including California) have recognized this exception. The exception interprets a covenant of fair dealing and good faith in every employment relationship. In this case, termination caused by hatred are prohibited, and that a “just cause” standard evaluates employer’s individual decisions.
Employment-at-will doctrine in California
Although the State of California is subject to the employment-at-will doctrine, over the years, courts in this state have increasingly diluted this particular doctrine by molding exceptions that hinders the employer’s capability of at will termination of an employee. Overcoming the at-will employment practice in California can be achieved via statutory exceptions, express agreements, or public policy (Stohon, Welshonce & Hull, 2003). First, statutory exceptions can be used to defeat the at-will presumption. For instance, the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Title VII) forbids the at will termination in case it hinges on protected status like ethnicity or race.
In addition, the National Labor Relations Act is against the termination of employee for taking part in protected concerted activity or union. Secondly, parties involved can reach an explicit agreement for essential and lawful conditions for termination (Stohon et al., 2003). Finally, termination at will is not permitted by the public policy exceptions. For instance, should an employee decline to partake in illegal price fixing at the request of an employer, this should not be taken by the employer as grounds for firing, because it would constitute wrongful termination.
Real world examples of the California-based employment-at-will doctrine
In Scott v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the California Supreme Court made huge expansions to the implied contract to include wrongful demotions. The plaintiffs in Scott had sued following a demotion from their positions as senior engineers. They stated that by demoting them on grounds of good cause only, their employer had contravened the terms of the “implied-in-fact” contract (Scott v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co, 1995). The trial court decided to grant the demoted employees damages due to the breached contract and although the employer appealed, the California Supreme Court decided by uphold the ruling of the trial court.
In its summations, the Supreme Court noted that there was substantial evidence from both the testimony given by the employer’s managers and the personnel policy manual from the employer to support the claim that employees expected the employer to abide by its human resource policy to the effect that employees could only be disciplined for good cause.
Evaluation of three of the scenarios provided
In the scenario in which Bill has been using his company-issued BlackBerry to run his own business on the side, Bill has violated the company’s law by using his employer’s resources (in this case, his company-issued BlackBerry ) to run his own business. There are no exceptions to this conduct in the employment-at-will doctrine. Moreover, Bill was using the company’s resources for his own personal business and this amounts to miuse of company resources. So, from a legal context, Bill could be fired.
In the scenario where one of the department supervisor requests the approval of the company’s COO to terminate the services of his secretary for insubordination, this is not grounds for her dismissal because she is being sacrificed for refusing to prepare false expenses for her boss. The employment-at-will doctrine makes this exception. Therefore, it would be illegal to fire the secretary.
Finally, there are no grounds for Anna’s boss decision to fire her for absence without permission. She had initially requested her boss to sign her leave request to attend to a jury duty, and her boss decline. She cannot therefore be legally fired as she was participating in a protected concerted activity.
Various States in the United States are governed by the employment-at-will doctrine, albeit to varying degrees. However, there are certain important exceptions to this doctrine, such as firing an employee against entrenched and clear public policy. In cases whereby an employer and employee share an implied contract, and where a covenant of good faith exists between the employer and employee, these are grounds for wrongful dismissal. The state of California is signatory to all of the three exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine. The doctrine has also been applied successfully in a number of real world cases, such as in Scott v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. In the case scenario provided, some of the proposed dismissals were wrongful because they contravened exceptions provided for by the employment-at-will doctrine.
Glynn, T. P., Arnow-Richman, R.S., & Sullivan, C.A. (2007). Employment Law: Private Ordering and Its Limitations. New York: Aspen Publishers.
Muhl, C. J. (2001). The employment-at-will doctrine: three major exceptions. Monthly Labor Review, 1-9.
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2014). The At-Will Presumption and Exceptions to
Scott v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (1995).
Stohon, A.M., Welshonce, T.C., & Hull, J.D. (2003). Is California Still an At-Will Employment