Employment Law Basics – “At Will” Exceptions

Most employers and employees in Washington State are familiar with the phrase that we are an “at will” state.  This means, many believe, that an employer may terminate an employee for any reason, or no reason at all.  However, there are exceptions to the “at will’ doctrine that both employers and employees must be aware of.  They are, very broadly and generally speaking:

1.  Termination or adverse job consequences (such as a reduction in hours, disfavored shifts, or unwanted transfers) arising from discriminatory motives.  What types of discrimination are unlawful? Those that target the employee based upon the employee’s race, ethnicity, religion, sex, pregnancy or family status, age, or disability (or perception as a disabled person).

2.  Termination or adverse job consequences due to the employee’s “whistle-blowing” activity; that is, where the employer knows or believes that the employee has reported unlawful conduct of the company / employer to a government agency charged with oversight.  Not all reports will protect the employee from retaliation for whistle-blowing.  This is an emerging and continually developing area of the law in our state, and additional legislative and litigation activity in this area is anticipated during the next several years.

3.  Termination or adverse job consequences in violation of the company’s own policy manual, contracts, procedures and promises to employees.  This is very fact-specific, and the company may successfully disclaim that the employee policy manual can be relied upon to create any expectation by the employee that particular procedures will be followed.  HOWEVER, employers may then have to explain why it did not follow its policy manual or established procedures with this particular employee (possibly leading back to apparently disciminatory motives).

Saphronia Young, Attorney – PLLC gives legal advice and litigates employment law claims for both employees and employers, depending upon the merits of each individual situation.  Employers seeking to create a solid employee policy manual, seeking to provide training to its work force and management, or seeking to investigate potential claims of discrimination will find knowledgeable and experienced legal assistance.  Employees seeking review of possible employment claims will find honest assessment of the potential merits of each claim, and the relative options available, including litigation.

This summary is not intended to be legal advice. You should consult an attorney in regard to your particular situation.