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124 Monthly Lab. Rev. 3 (2001)
The Employment-at-Will Doctrine: Three Major Exceptions

handle is hein.journals/month124 and id is 5 raw text is: The employment-at-will doctrine:
three major exceptions
In the United States, employees without a written
employment contract generally can be fired
for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all;
judicial exceptions to the rule seek
to prevent wrongful terminations

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
ike 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 em-
ployment-at-will doctrine avows that, when an
employee does not have a written employment
contract and the term of employment is of indefi-
nite 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 foot-

ing in terms of bargaining power. Thus, the em-
ployment-at-will doctrine reflected the belief that
people should be free to enter into employment
contracts of a specified duration, but that no ob-
ligations attached to either employer or employee
if a person was hired without such a contract.
Because employees were able to resign from po-
sitions they no longer cared to occupy, employ-
ers also were permitted to discharge employees
at their whim.
The Industrial Revolution planted the seeds
for the erosion of the employment-at-will doctrine.
When employees began forming unions, the col-
lective bargaining agreements they subsequently
negotiated with employers frequently had provi-
sions in them that required just cause for adverse
employment actions, as well as procedures for
arbitrating employee grievances.2 The 1960s
marked the beginning of Federal legislative pro-
tections (including Title VII of the 1964 Civil
Rights Act) from wrongful discharge based on
race, religion, sex, age, and national origin.3
These protections reflected the changing view of
the relationship between employer and employee.
Rather than seeing the relationship as being on
equal footing, courts and legislatures slowly be-
gan to recognize that employers frequently have
structural and economic advantages when nego-
tiating with potential or current employees. The
recognition of employment as being central to a
person's livelihood and well-being, coupled with
Monthly Labor Review  January 2001  3

Charles J. Muhl

Charles J. Muhl,
formerly an economist
with the Bureau of
Labor Statistics,
Washington, Dc, is an
attorney in Chicago,

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