In the United States, at-will employment is a commonly accepted labor practice – every state and the District of Columbia enforce at-will employment policies in some form. However, some states have exceptions to these laws, in order to give employees more rights against potentially advantageous employers.
Which states have exceptions to at-will employment? With assistance from data visualization firm 1Point21 Interactive, we researched this topic, creating interactive maps detailing these exceptions.
At its simplest form, at-will employment states that any employee can be dismissed or fired without prior justification or warning – as long as the reason is not illegal.
This means that any employee hired can be easily fired without prior notice or even a good reason, as long as they aren’t wrongfully terminated, e.g. against laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
At-will employment gives employees few protections from sudden termination from their employers. In order to combat this, varying exceptions have been passed in each state to empower employees who feel they may have been wrongfully terminated.
There are three types of exceptions to at-will employment laws: public policy, implied contract, and covenant of good faith.
The public policy exception states that an employer may not dismiss an employee if firing them violates any established public policy. In this case, public policy refers to any generally accepted common practices or state or federal statutes. This includes terminating an employee for:
42 states and the District of Columbia recognize public policy as an exception – only 8 do not have the exception.
However, it’s important to note that some states do not make an exception for public policy because other previously established statutes already cover parts of the exception. For example, although Maine has no public policy exception to at-will employment, some previously established statutes give employees protections similar to the public policy provisions seen in other states.
Under an implied contract exception, an employer is not permitted to dismiss an employee if an implied contract exists between both to infer that they are not hired on an at-will basis. Under this exception, there is no express written contact that actually states this, but rather an understanding of the company’s policies that indicates this – usually in the form of an employee handbook or something similar.
37 states and the District of Columbia enforce an implied contract exception. However, it is widely established that proving the terms of an implied contract are often incredibly difficult, with the burden of proof falling on the fired employee.
Also known as an “implied-in-law” contract, the covenant of good faith and fair dealing exception states that employers may only terminate employees based on just cause and good faith. This exception protects employees who feel they may have been terminated in bad faith; examples of this include:
11 states currently have exceptions on the basis of covenant of good faith. However, successfully filing a wrongful termination suit based on this exception is often incredibly difficult, as it can be truly complicated to determine a company’s true motivations for firing an employee.
Summing it all up, this table lists the status of each state regarding At-Will Employment exemptions for public policy, implied contracts and covenant of good faith.
|State||Public Policy||Implied Contracts||Covenant of Good Faith|
|District of Columbia||Yes||Yes||No|
Montana is the only state in the United States who does not operate on a traditional at-will employment policy. True at-will employment is only enforced for employees who are in an introductory probationary period; non-probationary employees have further protections from the Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act. This states that a dismissal is wrongful if:
Essentially, an employer must have a good, justifiable reason to dismiss an employee.
Although many states share similar exceptions to at-will employment policies, these statutes may be interpreted or enforced differently based on the state’s general policies and past precedents. As such, it is highly recommended to consult an attorney specializing in employment law about any questions regarding any disputes that may have occurred due to at-will employment laws.
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