When does a firing violate at-will employment exceptions?

| Jan 29, 2021 | Blog |

Letting an employee go is never an easy decision. Yet there are many situations where you (as an employer in California) may have little choice but to do so. Your concerns over such action are understandable; the potential of a dismissed employee accusing you of wrongful termination is ever-present.

The concept of at-will employment allows any party to an employment arrangement may end it at their own will. According to Section 2922 of the local Labor Code, California is an at-will employment state. You may think this fact protects you from allegations of wrongful termination, yet one may still accuse you of violating at-will employment exceptions.

Avoiding terminations that run contrary to public policy

There are common law exceptions to at-will employment. The most obvious prevents you from firing an employee in an action that violates public policy. Examples of this may include an employee claiming their dismissal was due to discrimination based on factors such as:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Age
  • Religious beliefs

Answering to accusations such as this simply requires that you show your reasons for terminating an employee’s job had nothing to do with the aforementioned factors.

Managing implied promises and fair dealing

The other exceptions to at-will employment terminations may present more complexity. An employee may claim, for example, that your conversations or policy manuals implied that meeting certain expectations (or avoided certain actions) would guarantee their employment. Therefore, you should ensure that no such implications exist in your policies or discourse.

An implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing also provides an exception to at-will employment. This prohibits you from firing an employee in order to no fulfill an obligation to them (such as paying a performance bonus or retirement benefits). Again, evidence and documentation supporting your reasons for terminating an employee may refute any accusations of wrongdoing.