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January, 2001, Vol. 124, No. 1
The employment-at-will doctrine: three major exceptionsCharles J. Muhl
Work joyfully and peacefully, knowing that
right thoughts and right efforts will
inevitably bring about right results
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.1
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.
This excerpt is from an article published in the January 2001 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF). See How to view a PDF file for more information.
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1 Shane and Rosenthal, Employment Law Deskbook, § 16.02 (1999).
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