By Dr. Decateur Reed
Professor at Boise State University
I applied for a job at a non-government company, completed an application, was interviewed, and was hired. I worked for the company for 7 months and all my performance reviews were good. One day I showed up for work and was fired. Were the company’s actions illegal?
–Unemployed and Searching for Answers
Every state has the authority to establish employment practices within its respective jurisdiction. The State of Idaho has adopted the doctrine of at-will employment for private companies, which has been upheld through decades of court cases. The purpose of this doctrine is to “maximize individual freedom of choice in the pursuit of employment and to encourage an employment climate conducive to economic growth.” This at-will doctrine establishes the presumption that employment is maintained strictly at the option of the parties. That is, the employer may terminate an employee at any time and for any reason without incurring liability. Conversely, the employee may terminate the relationship at any time for any reason without incurring liability. However, there are some statutory and voluntary limitations, which may alter the employer and employee’s at-will relationship, thereby allowing the parties to rebut the presumption that the relationship is terminable at their will.
Employment can be governed by a contractual agreement between the parties. If a private employer hires someone under a contract that specifies the duration of the employment, then both parties are held to that time period. Termination by the employer or resignation by the employee prior to the stated end period may constitute a breach of the contract, thereby exposing the breaching party to liability for damages. In addition, a contract may include negotiated reasons for termination or resignation, in which case the parties must abide by these limitations or be in breach. Employee handbooks have been held to be a contractual agreement between the parties, unless specifically stated otherwise.
There is an inherent public policy limitation on at-will employment. This acts as a restriction which requires that a private employer only terminate an employee for reasons that do not contravene public policy. Employee actions that are protected by statute are limited to an employee’s exercise of a legal right, compliance with a legal duty, or good faith disclosure of an employer’s illegal conduct (whistleblowing). Furthermore, a private employer’s termination of an employee in order to deprive an employee of an accrued benefit or right is against public policy under the common law as a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Termination in such instances may expose the employer to liability for damages.
Termination can be wrongful if it contravenes federal or state law on the basis of discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits all private employers, who are engaged in interstate commerce and have 15 or more employees, from discriminating on the basis of race, color, gender, national origin, or religion. Additional federal laws offer protections on the basis of age, pregnancy, disability, and veteran status. Idaho statutory law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, or disability. However, both federal and state laws allow discrimination within certain protected classes if the business can show that the discriminatory practice is reasonably necessary as a “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ). A popular example of a BFOQ based on gender is the requirement that an employee be a woman in order to be hired as a “Hooters Girl” at Hooters Restaurants.
You should consider your private employment as being strictly at-will, unless it is altered by a contract, contravenes public policy, or is prohibited by federal or state law.
This column is designed for readers to ask a variety of legal questions to an expert in the legal field. If you have a question you’d like to ask, please send background details and the question you’d like answered to Dr. Reed’s e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is intended as a general review of various legal issues. It should not be relied upon as a substitute for comprehensive legal advice. The information contained in this article is strictly the opinion of the author.