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February 15, 2001
Employment-at-will Doctrine Lives on - Mostly
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Charles J. Muhl in the Monthly Labor Review


Work joyfully and peacefully, knowing that
right thoughts and right efforts will
inevitably bring about right results
-James Allen

See only that thou work and thou canst
not escape the reward
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Like Allen and Emerson, many workers in the United States believe that satisfactory job performance should be rewarded with, among other benefits, job security. However, this expectation that employees will not be fired if they perform their jobs well has eroded in recent decades in the face of an increased incidence of mass layoffs, reductions in companies' workforces, and job turnover. In legal terms, though, since the last half of the 19th century, employment in each of the United States has been "at will," or terminable by either the employer or employee for any reason whatsoever. The employment-at-will doctrine avows that, when an employee does not have a written employment contract and the term of employment is of indefinite duration, the employer can terminate the employee for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.

Traditionally and as recently as the early 1900s, courts viewed the relationship between employer and employee as being on equal footing in terms of bargaining power. Thus, the employment-at-will doctrine reflected the belief that people should be free to enter into employment contracts of a specified duration, but that no obligations attached to either employer or employee if a person was hired without such a contract. Because employees were able to resign from positions they no longer cared to occupy, employers also were permitted to discharge employees at their whim.

The author says there are 3 exceptions to the employment-at-will principle:
1. Public policy exception
2. Implied contract exception
3. Convenant of good faith and fair dealing exception

To view the rest of this article, published in the January 2001 issue of the Monthly Labor Review (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) download this PDF file now .

To see what is in HR.BLR.com's Content Library on Employment at Will go to: http://hr.blr.com/content/subs.cfm?subs_id=56
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