The Employment-At-Will Doctrine: Practical Usage


Since its advent, the doctrine of at-will has been an employment principle in the United States, which has continuously received mixed reactions, making it a controversial principle of employment (Dannin, 2007). In the United States, numerous states have presumed that all employment contracts are subject to the at-will doctrine. Whereas some companies have considered the at-will doctrine to be an effective principle that assists in instilling discipline among unruly employees, others have found it inappropriate (Autor, 2003). Being a conventional principle, the doctrine in the United States has sometimes given the employers in the private sector the legal mandate to discharge employees without proper reasons (Dannin, 2007). Hence, this essay analyzes some workplace scenarios to examine the appropriateness or unfitness of this principle in different cases of employment.

The Employment At-Will Doctrine

Employment at-will is a doctrine stipulated within the common law of the United States that emerged in 1871 with an intention of supporting the free market economy in the United States (Dannin, 2007). The doctrine serves both the interest of the employers, as well as that of the employees under certain employment regulations. The at-will doctrine presumes that an employer, whether public or private, has a legal mandate to dismiss an employee for any genuine reason, except an illegal one (Dannin, 2007). The doctrine also allows employers to sack employees without notice, and face no legal repercussions. The at-will doctrine, however, is a conventional rule of the workplace that is amenable to suit the nature of contracts. At-will doctrine carries some common law exceptions and statutory law exceptions to the employment relationships and contracts.

John’s Facebook Scenario and the Doctrine

In a workplace scenario, John places an angry outburst on his Facebook wall, which apparently condemns one of customers who is very important to the company. John deliberately violates the privacy regulations existing between the company and the consumers, and deserves to face legal action. According to Sprague (2013), within the American common law, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 protects employee work-related speech. NLRA “restricts employers from disciplining or firing employees for engaging in certain types of online communications” (Sprague, 2013, p. 557). Nonetheless, the NLRA guarantees protection to such punishments only if the concerned communication is for mutual aid or protection. Nothing indicates that the employee is unsafe in the company or is in mutual assistance with the consumer.

Jim’s Email Issue and the Doctrine

Jim deliberately emails his fellow salesperson to oppose changes in payment arrangements and additional benefits, and further tells the salespersons not to attend the upcoming sales meeting. Common law exceptions to firing or punishing of employees include implied covenant of good faith exceptions where employers cannot dismiss workers on malicious intentions (Autor, 2003). Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees the freedom to engage in concerted activities that involve protection issues and mutual assistance. According to Sprague (2013), for an employee activity to remain considered as concerted, “the employee must have been acting with or under the authority of other employees, and not acting solely on her own behalf” (p. 559). Any move to terminate Jim from work is unethical and against the at-will doctrine, as the covenant of good faith stipulates.

Ellen’s Blog Matter and the Doctrine

Ellen develops a blog with intention to disapprove the Chief Executive Officer’s pay rise, keeping in mind that in two consecutive years, no one among the employees has received any bonus other than the director. Although it sounds unprofessional for Ellen to elicit unnecessary reactions through the blog, the United States statutory law has some exceptions that none can ignore. According to Autor (2003), statutory exceptions to the at-will presumption are the federal and state laws of America, which disallow employers from dismissing workers who are retaliating legally. Under the statutory exceptions, it is unlawful for an employer to dismiss workers, who are justifiably claiming compensations of their wages or overtime allowances (Dannin, 2007). To dismiss Ellen would be unjust, but a punishment would deem necessary to remind Ellen that formal communication is critical.

Bill’s Blackberry Case and the Doctrine

Since Bill is always use blackberry of the company in his private businesses, he deserves dismissal. Unless otherwise allowed in the contractual agreements, the employment at-will doctrine gives employers the power to dismiss workers, who misuse the property of the company at the expense of ruining the company’s performance (Autor, 2003). Statutory exceptions to the at-will presumption involve several cases of limited protection to careless practices of employees regarding their off-duty activities. Employers remain permitted to restrain any employee off-duty activity that interferes with their occupational responsibilities, relates to employment duties assigned to the employees, and influences job attendance of employees.

Accounting Secretaries and the Key Logger Software

Some secretaries from the accounting sector wear black and white stripy clothes to object a memo, which states that the firm has mounted computer key logger software on all computers. In this scenario, there is no obligation to any public policy, and the case does not involve any exceptions of the at-will doctrine that is acceptable in the common and statutory laws. The secretaries who are protesting against the implementation of the policy, which seek to enhance company’s operations, require punishment because their actions are affecting the operation of the company.

Joe’s Email Concern and the Doctrine

Given that the company disciplines Joe for condemning a customer using company’s computer, he threatens to file a lawsuit against the company for invading his privacy. The National Labor Relations Act protects employees from work-related speeches if they contain concerted activities that involve the protection of employee rights in the workplace (Sprague, 2013). NLRA, however, does not protect employees against punishment or dismissal if their communication contains malicious intentions. According to the Act, employees should avoid damaging the integrity and image of the company in any form of their communication (Sprague, 2013). Following the stipulations of the at-will doctrine, the circumstances surrounding the case of Joe fall within no exceptions of the common and statutory laws of America, and hence, Joe deserves a dismissal.

Secretary Alleged Insubordination Case and the Doctrine

A company department supervisor seeks permission from the Chief Operating Officer (COO) to dismiss his personal secretary for alleged disobedience. As the COO, I would determine the claim that the secretary refused to prepare important reports for her overseer as malicious. According to the stipulations of the at-will doctrine, employers have no mandate to dismiss workers based on their malicious motives (Dannin, 2007). The doctrine commands employers to respect the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and not to dismiss workers through their personal ill motives. Employers must uphold fair dealing in their relationships with employees, as firing the secretary through false allegations is unacceptable based on the exceptions articulated in the common law. The case contains tort-based claims as the supervisor induces dismissal of workers based on improper motives.

Case of Anna’s Boss and the Doctrine

In the scenario, Anna’s boss refuses to grant her permission to attend the function of the jury, but later the boss seeks to dismiss Anna on allegations of insubordination. Based on the common law exceptions found in the employment at-will doctrine, employers have no legal permission to dismiss workers attending a jury function (Autor, 2003). In this view, Anna has some immunity as the exceptions of the doctrine prohibit employers from dismissing employees who are acting in the public interest. By attending the jury function, Anna is practicing her legal duty, and since the boss refuses to permit her to attend the jury function, there is no legal or logical reason to dismiss her (Dannin, 2007). Refusing to attend a jury service violates public policy, and thus unlawful.

Recommendation: Adopting the Whistleblower Policy

The whistleblower policy exists in some states in the United States where the laws prevent employers from terminating employees for whistle blowing (Dannin, 2007). Whistle blowing actions involve cases where employees report violations of laws committed by their employers, file a lawsuit against their employers over compensation claims, or advocate for their rights (Dannin, 2007). Typically, the rights of whistleblowers involve protection against adverse employment actions after complaining about any form of wrongdoings against their employers. The rationale for selecting the three scenarios that should prevail in the whistleblower policy for the concerned company depends on the case scenarios described. The employer violates laws, frustrates employee compensation issues, and does not respect the rulings of the jury concept in the at-will doctrine.


Based on the stipulations found in the employment at-will doctrine, most of the employment-related scenarios in the company limit the power of employers to dismiss employees. The workers are either acting on justifiable reasons that include observing online communication rights acceptable by the National Labor Relations Act or protected by the common law and statutory law exceptions to the at-will doctrine. Hence, it is imperative to adopt the whistleblower policy in the company, as employers seem ignorant of claims that employees make.


Autor, D. (2003). Outsourcing at Will: The Contribution of Unjust Dismissal Doctrine to the Growth of Employment Outsourcing. Journal of Labor Economics, 21(1), 1-42.

Dannin, E. (2007). Why at-will employment is bad for employers and Just cause is good for them. Labor Law Journal, 58(5), 6-16.

Sprague, R. (2013). Online Social Media and the End of the Employment-at-Will Doctrine. Washburn Law Journal, 52(1), 557-579.

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