At-Will Employee Law & Legal Definition


An “At –Will Employee” refers to an employee whom an employer can terminate at will for any reason or for no reason at all.

According to the At-Will Employment doctrine employment is presumed to be voluntary and indefinite for both employees and employers. The employees may generally quit their jobs at anytime and for any, no or even unfair reasons. Likewise the employers may generally fire or layoff employees at anytime and for any or no reasons.

The At-Will Employment doctrine varies from state to state. Some states are much more protective of employees than others. Those states have established "exceptions" to the at-will doctrine. Even when there is no formal contract courts will "imply" a contract between the employer and employee. This notion of an implied contract protects employees from discharge or demotion without cause.

Apart from this there is also an enormous body of federal and state law limiting an employer's ability to terminate employees for reasons having to do with race, ethnicity, religion, marital or disability status and, in some cases, sexual orientation. Complaints about violations of employee rights, union activities, workers' compensation filings, reports of health or safety violations, and several other categories of employee activities cannot be the basis of a termination decision.

In short an employer cannot fire employees in any way that constitutes discrimination, a violation of state public policy, or contradicts any actual or implied promise regarding the criteria or procedures for employee termination.

In New Jersey, Pierce v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 84 N.J. 58, 72 (N.J. 1980), created a common-law cause of action for at-will "employees" for wrongful discharge when the discharge is contrary to a clear mandate of public policy. The Conscientious Employee Protection Act was enacted in 1986 in response to this Court's decision in Pierce. CEPA "establishes a statutory exception to the general rule that an employer may terminate an at-will employee with or without cause. [ Feldman v. Hunterdon Radiological Assocs., 187 N.J. 228 (N.J. 2006).

CEPA N.J. Stat. § 34:19-3 provides, in relevant part:

§ 34:19-3. Retaliatory action prohibited

An employer shall not take any retaliatory action against an employee because the employee does any of the following:

a. Discloses, or threatens to disclose to a supervisor or to a public body an activity, policy or practice of the employer, or another employer, with whom there is a business relationship, that the employee reasonably believes:

(1) is in violation of a law, or a rule or regulation promulgated pursuant to law, including any violation involving deception of, or misrepresentation to, any shareholder, investor, client, patient, customer, employee, former employee, retiree or pensioner of the employer or any governmental entity, or, in the case of an employee who is a licensed or certified health care professional, reasonably believes constitutes improper quality of patient care; or

(2) is fraudulent or criminal, including any activity, policy or practice of deception or misrepresentation which the employee reasonably believes may defraud any shareholder, investor, client, patient, customer, employee, former employee, retiree or pensioner of the employer or any governmental entity;

b. Provides information to, or testifies before, any public body conducting an investigation, hearing or inquiry into any violation of law, or a rule or regulation promulgated pursuant to law by the employer, or another employer, with whom there is a business relationship, including any violation involving deception of, or misrepresentation to, any shareholder, investor, client, patient, customer, employee, former employee, retiree or pensioner of the employer or any governmental entity, or, in the case of an employee who is a licensed or certified health care professional, provides information to, or testifies before, any public body conducting an investigation, hearing or inquiry into the quality of patient care; or

c. Objects to, or refuses to participate in any activity, policy or practice which the employee reasonably believes:

(1) is in violation of a law, or a rule or regulation promulgated pursuant to law, including any violation involving deception of, or misrepresentation to, any shareholder, investor, client, patient, customer, employee, former employee, retiree or pensioner of the employer or any governmental entity, or, if the employee is a licensed or certified health care professional, constitutes improper quality of patient care;

(2) is fraudulent or criminal, including any activity, policy or practice of deception or misrepresentation which the employee reasonably believes may defraud any shareholder, investor, client, patient, customer, employee, former employee, retiree or pensioner of the employer or any governmental entity; or

(3) is incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy concerning the public health, safety or welfare or protection of the environment.