4 Employment Terms to Get Right: “At-Will” doctrine

Mike Okun

Mike Okun, General Counsel to NC State AFL-CIO

Although almost all of us are employees at some point in, if not most of, our lives, even the basics of employment law are not taught in our schools. As one result, most people have little understanding of employment law. In this four-part series, NC State AFL-CIO General Counsel Mike Okun briefly discusses four terms or areas that are often misunderstood or confused by people in North Carolina:  a) the “at-will” doctrine; b)”wrongful” discharge; c) the so-called  “right-to- work” law; and public sector collective bargaining.

Part 1: The “At-Will” Doctrine

Employment relationships in North Carolina are presumed to be “at-will.” This means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for almost any reason or for no reason at all. The employee basically works at the will of the employer. The employer can likewise change the terms and conditions of the employment relationship – wages, hours, or benefits, as examples – without notice or consequence. The supposed trade-off is that employees can end the relationship at any time if they so desire.

There are exceptions to this at-will doctrine. Congress and the state legislature have passed laws that prohibit discharges based on certain types of discrimination – race, sex, or age, as examples.  Our courts have also recognized a narrow group of cases in which a discharge might violate our state’s public policies – discharge of an employee for refusing to commit perjury or to commit an illegal act, as examples. If the reason for a discharge does not fit within one of these exceptions to the at-will doctrine, however, the at-will doctrine generally applies. Congress and our state legislature have also provided a few minimum requirements about the terms of employment – minimum wage and overtime rules, as examples.  If an employer’s action does not violate one of these minimum standards, the at-will doctrine generally applies.

The best exception to the at-will doctrine is a contract, whether an individual employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement. Where such a contract exists, and which might include provisions, as examples, that dismissals  can only be for “just cause” or  promise certain conditions of work, the parties’ relationship is defined by the contract’s terms rather than the at-will doctrine.