The Employment-at-Will Doctrine

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The employment at will doctrine is an American law which governs the relationship between an employee and the employer. It states the circumstances under which each party can terminate implied employment contract without incurring any liability. Any employee serving under an implied contract can be terminated from job for a bad cause reason, good cause reason, or with no cause or reason at all (Moeller, 2004). However, this doctrine states down exceptions that are aimed to prevent termination of an employee on grounds considered unjust. Initially the court system considered employers and employees to be equal partners in the employment (Bainbridge, 2007). Therefore, the employment at will doctrine reflected the freedom of people to enter into employment with a definite time although it placed no legal obligations on either the employee or the employer if they agreed on employment terms without a written contract (Moeller, 2004).

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Although it gives an employer the right to fire an employee at will, it also provides exceptions that protect an employee from discriminatory termination of services. The three major exceptions are exceptions to termination due to the breach of contract of employment by an employer, the breach of the implied covenant of fair dealings and good faith, and public policy violation by an employer (Moeller, 2004). The exception on the employers breach of an implied contract protects an employee from termination in a situation in which an employer either in writing or implicitly promised job security to an employee (Bainbridge, 2007). Therefore, an employer in this case can only discharge an employee on the grounds of a just cause by following the laid down procedure. In the case of good faith and fair dealing covenant exception, employees are protected from terminations that are as a result of malice or bad motive (Miller & Jentz, 2010). Therefore, an employer must have justification for his or her action for employee’s termination. To protect whistle blowers, the exception on public policy violation was formulated. Therefore, an employer cannot terminate an employee on the ground that an employee has raised alarm on the possible violation of public policy, as laid down by Sarbanes-Oxley.

Application of Employment at Will Doctrine

Employers can either engage employees based on a written contract or an implied contract. The basis of the contract is the ability of an employee to execute her duties professionally, and effectively. As such, an employee is expected to possess the required competencies that will enable him or her to perform those duties for which he or she was employed. (Miller & Jentz, 2010).

If Jennifer is unable to learn these skills even after the effort of the employer to equip him with the skills, the employer can legally be allowed to discharge the employee based on the employment at will doctrine. However, this employee must not have a written contract with the employer (David, 2010).

The employer in the termination of this employee has to prove there is a just cause which means the employee cannot successfully challenge the employer in the court of law. However, the employer should demonstrate that effort was done to equip the employee and that the employee failed to learn the skills therefore affecting her performance.

To reduce the risk that may arise from the termination, the employer should include some reasons under which an employee can be terminated, in the employees handbooks.

In this case, the exception on good faith and fair dealings covenant can apply. This exception will protect the accounting firm since it can be proven that the Jennifer was incompetent to perform her duties as required.

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Jennifer intentionally reports to work late and lacks emotional control. This behavior can legally lead to her discharge from employment based on the doctrine of employment at will. The employer has knowledge of the policy document that lays down the acceptable behavior of employees when at work (Halbert & Ingulli, 2011). In particular, it defines the relationship among employees and states down the reporting time to work.

By accepting employment, Jennifer impliedly accepts to observe the rules and regulations laid down by policy document of the accounting firm. Therefore, if she fails to follow the rules and regulations as formulated, she can be considered to have breached the implied contract of employment.

To prevent risk on his part, the employer must ensure employees are served with rules and regulations of work immediately on their employment. The company should also set rules and regulations to govern employees’ dispute resolution process.

The exception on just cause and fair dealing apply in this case. The accounting firm is justified to discharge Jennifer from her duties due to her behavior that is likely to affect her performance and performance of other employees.

An employee has the right to religion and a right to form or to join a labor union. Therefore, the accounting firm cannot discharge (David, 2010). Jennifer from duties legally based on the employment at will doctrine on the ground that she took part in a religious activity on the day she was supposed to be off duty. She cannot also be terminated for her effort to form a labor union to protect accountants.

If the accounting firm terminates Jennifer in this case, the firm will be liable to pay damages to the employee (Miller & Cross, 2008). By discharging her from her duties, they would have gone against her right to religion and association.

The accounting firm can prevent the legal charges or this situation from happening by allowing employees to join or form a labor union. They should also have a written agreement with employees on circumstances under which they can forfeit their off days in favor of work.

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The retaliation statute in the federal laws which protects an employee from termination by an employer on the ground of joining labor union activities and opposing discrimination done illegally will apply in this case (David, 2010). The exception on just cause and fair dealing will also prevent the firm from terminating Jennifer’s duties since there is no justifiable cause for the action.

If employment policies prevent sexual relationships between employees and their supervisors, employees are expected to observe this. The employer has the obligation to provide employees with this information. Therefore if Jennifer engages a supervisor in a consensual relationship, the accounting firm can legally terminate her based on the employment at will doctrine.

The employer in this case cannot be challenged successfully in court on the basis of an illegal termination. However, Jennifer can sue the firm alleging sexual harassment by the supervisor.

To prevent the risk that might arise from his action, the accounting firm should formulate measures that protect employees from sexual harassment by their supervisors (Halbert & Ingulli, 2011). They should also establish mechanism to deal with such harassment and should demonstrate the procedure that should be followed should such issues arise. In this case, the exception that applies is the breach of the implied contract. Jennifer is considered to have breached the contract of employment if she intentionally failed to follow the laid down procedures. The employer therefore can terminate her in this a situation without the risk of incurring any liability.

If the employer decides to terminate Jennifer from her duties, the firm will be protected by the just cause and fair dealing exception since there is a justifiable cause for her termination.


The public policy exception in the employment at will doctrine protects whistle blowers from illegal termination of employment as a result of their effort to report actions of the employer or other employees that are against the explicitly laid down public policies. Therefore, an employer is liable to pay damages if he terminates employment contract of an employee for his cooperation with the state against criminal activities of the employer. This exception allows activities of whistle blowing in public and private corporations. Sarbanes-Oxley doctrine lays down policies that govern operations of accounting firms (Hudson, 2010). In particular, it defines criminal activities of an individual or a corporate body that may arise in the execution of duties. Together with public policy exception in the employment at will doctrine, the Sarbanes-Oxley doctrine protects whistle blowers and therefore encourages their activities.


Hudson, L., D. (2010). The Handy Law Answer Book. Visible Ink Press: Canton.

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Moeller, R. (2004). Sarbanes-Oxley and the New Internal Auditing Rules. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Miller, L. R., & Cross, B. F. (2008).The Legal Environment Today: Business in Its Ethical, Regulatory, E-Commerce, and Global Setting. Cengage Learning: Connecticut.

Miller, L. R., & Jentz, A. G. (2010). Business Law Today: The Essentials. Cengage Learning: Connecticut.

Bainbridge, S., M. (2007). The Complete Guide to Sarbanes-Oxley: Understanding How Sarbanes-Oxley Affects Your Business. Adams Media: New York.

Halbert, T., & Ingulli, E. (2011). Law & Ethics in the Business Environment: South- Western Legal Studies in Business Academic. Cengage Learning: Connecticut.

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