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Are there exceptions to at-will employment?

At-will employment refers to an employer’s right to terminate a worker for any reason, provided the reason is not deemed discriminatory. Most states offer employment at-will, which is intended to protect both employers as well as employees (as workers are free to quit a job without fear of consequences). There are some exceptions to the at-will rule however, as explained by

Public policy

In the event an employee uncovers an unethical or unlawful practice at a place of employment, he or she can’t be fired in retaliation. This is known as the public policy exception, which protects whistleblowers from recrimination from their employers when performing legally protected acts. This includes actions protected by local or federal law, or those deemed to be in the interest of the public at large. For example, if a restaurant worker reports his or her place of employment to food safety officials it wouldn’t be lawful to fire the person.


The terms stated within an employment contract can also override at-will legislation. That means if your employer states that firings can’t occur unless a certain process is followed you can’t be terminated unless your employer has done so. Employment contracts can also be implied. Implied contracts are hard to establish and in most cases the employee must present evidence that they exist.

Good faith/fair dealing

Employers must also treat their workers fairly. As a result, employers are not permitted to fire workers just to avoid performing their stated duties. This includes things like paying for healthcare or retirement plans. Regardless of the at-will doctrine, employers must honor their commitments to workers and can’t end an employment contract just to get out of these duties.

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