Reminder: Exceptions to the At-Will Employment Relationship

Ohio is among the 49 states that recognize the at-will employment relationship (Montana is the lone exception).  In Ohio an employee may be terminated for any reason that is not unlawful or for no reason, just as an employee may quit for any reason or no reason.  However, there are several exceptions to this doctrine that should be reviewed when an employer is preparing to terminate an employee.

Under the public policy exception, an employee is wrongfully discharged when the termination violates an explicit, well-established public policy of the state. For example, in most states, an employer can’t terminate an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim after being injured on the job, or for refusing to engage in illegal activity at the request of an employer.

The implied contract exception to the at-will employment doctrine may exist by virtue of promises or assurances made to an employee upon which the employee reasonably relied.  The employee handbook is fertile ground for creation of a claim of implied contract if it does not clearly state that none of the handbook policies is intended to create an implied contract and the at-will employment doctrine is specifically preserved. Handbooks should be reviewed periodically to ensure that no promises are contained therein and should clearly state that the Employer may add, alter, and/or amend policies at any time.  Employees should be required to acknowledge in writing their status as at-will employees and Supervisors should be trained not to use promissory language, such as assurance of job security.

A big exception to the at-will doctrine is the prohibition from firing an employee in violation of state or federal employment laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

A small minority of states reads a covenant of good faith and fair dealing into every employment relationship. This exception means either that employer personnel decisions are subject to a “just cause” standard or that terminations in bad faith or motivated by malice are prohibited.

A prominent statement of the at-will relationship from the outset of employment, along with an understanding of the exceptions thereto will avert many issues in the termination process.

 

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