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Pros and Cons of the Employment-At-Will Doctrine

written by: •edited by: Linda Richter•updated: 1/24/2011

Most states follow the “at-will" doctrine, meaning an employer or employee can terminate the relationship without cause or reason. While the at-will statute used to be uniform, there have been changes--so here we’ll look at employment at-will pros and cons.

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    What Is the At-Will Doctrine?

    The At Will Clause Has its Pros and Cons To discover the advantages and disadvantages of the employment-at-will doctrine, first you must gain a basic understanding of how it is meant to work and if your state follows its own set of laws for employment at-will. Bright Hub writer Linda Richter offers a great explanation of the at-will doctrine, how it started, and the rules by state in her article about At-Will Employment. This is a must-read for helping employers understand employment at-will—and the pros and cons. Learning How the At-Will Clause Protects You as an Employer is also a great read.

    The basic premise of either the employee or the employer ending the working relationship (or the at-will clause) consists of an employee quitting his job whenever he pleases (no two-week’s notice) or an employer ending the job relationship on the spot—for no reason. But sticking to this doctrine entirely may not be in your best interest as an employer. So what are some of the employment-at-will pros and cons?

    Image Credit (MorgueFile)

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    Employer Advantages of the At-Will Doctrine

    Many employers like the option of ending an employee working relationship without cause or reason. Why? Because the employer doesn’t necessarily have to offer up a reason for the termination, it often makes it easier to get rid of difficult employees and avoid employee lawsuits.

    It’s also easy to notify employees of the at-will environment by including the clause in your handbook. If you have specialized employees that sign employment contracts, as an employer, you have some rights on the reasons the employee can quit via the verbiage of the employment contract.

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    Employer Disadvantages of the At-Will Doctrine

    Employees Can Quit at a Moments Notice Unfortunately for the employer, when looking at employment-at-will pros and cons, there are really more cons than pros.

    Just as the employer can terminate the working relationship without cause, so can the employee—meaning they can basically quit anytime they wish. In a workforce full of worries about job stability, employees may jump from job to job in hopes of finding the right career path or company that offers exactly what they want—this can mean large employee turnover.

    If you utilize employee contracts and you find you want to terminate an employee, you may not be able to do so, based on the written requirements within the contract.

    Employees that do up and quit without any notice can leave the employer seeking a quick solution to filling the employee’s role within the company.

    Certain laws overrule the at-will doctrine such as the public exception—meaning no employer can ask any employee to do something illegal; protection for the employee from firing for race, age, sex, nationality or religion; and protection for the employee under the Family Medical Leave Act. An employer may also face challenges of terminating an employee that is out on a work-related injury and receiving workman’s compensation benefits.

    Image Credit (MorgueFile)

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    Protecting Your Company

    As you can see, employment-at-will pros and cons offer up much insight into terminating the employee/employer relationship. Your best bet is to avoid employment contracts and have a well-written at-will clause contained within your employee handbook that includes statements on the exceptions to the doctrine. For more information on the advantages and disadvantages of the at-will clause, read the Bright Hub article, Defining Employment At-Will: Avoiding Wrongful Termination Lawsuits. You can also find a free employee handbook template in our Media Gallery that contains a great at-will employment clause.

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    The Basics of At Will Employment (Melton & Kumler, LLP) retrieved at