Ethics of the At-Will Doctrine
There are numerous ethical issues that are present in the At-will doctrine. These ethical issues are present due to the doctrine’s primary focus of establishing termination ‘without cause’. The ability of employers to arbitrarily fire workers present a situation in which the worker has very small foundation upon which to argue employment termination as unfair such as in situations of discrimination.
Under the doctrine of at-will, either the employer or employee have the right to terminate employment with good, bad, or no cause. This is doctrine is problematic on its face because it places employers in a position that if they terminate an employee for any cause other than ‘no cause’ they are leaving themselves open to litigation. For example, in cases of whistleblowers if a company terminates the whistleblower the termination could be argued as retaliatory providing that the plaintiff can provide evidence that it was. The problem becomes apparent, as the doctrine provides no motivation to terminate individuals except without cause. This creates a secondary ethical issue in which at-will can create situations in which other forms of implied contract are rendered worthless.
In 2006, a case was presented in which an attorney who reported misconduct of another attorney was terminated for his actions. The attorney brought suit against the firm, claiming that the he was wrongfully discharged. The plaintiff argued that there was an implied contract to obey and report unethical behavior as dictated by the ethics which all attorneys must agree to under the American Bar Association. Within this framework, the at-will doctrine should not be applied due to the ethics contract that attorneys must agree, but instead the court found:
The court was willing to find an implied obligation of good faith in the context of the ethics rule requiring lawyers to report misconduct because that rule “is critical to the unique function of self-regulation belonging to the legal profession.” The court limited its holding, however, by stating that it was “by no means suggest[ing] that each provision of the Code of Professional Responsibility should be deemed incorporated as an implied in law term in every contractual relationship between or among lawyers” (Maher, 2006).
The court was unwilling to extend the contractual obligation of the code of ethics to all at-will situations. This ruling presents a myriad of unethical situations which could occur. Any employer can now feel free to terminate an employee when he or she is upholding a codified ethical standard calling “at-will”. For example, if a doctor reports unethical behavior of a fellow doctor to the medical board, he or she (even if ethically bound) could be terminated by their hospital or practice for stepping outside the company policies (Maher, 2006). This situation is made worse by the fact that public employees do not have the same whistleblower protections and private employees. Government workers are not allowed to be whistleblowers in many instances and are required to follow specific reporting methods (Summers, 2000). This creates serious issues for government employees who are trying to be ethical.
When one looks at these ethical issues surrounding the at-will doctrine, it is easy to see that the doctrine is counter to many legal principles such as laws be equitable and not capricious. The doctrine was designed in this manner to make it easier for both business and employees to make changes but the current design favors the employer since the employer is the one who holds the larger authority in the relationship (Summers, 2000). To correct this problem, the doctrine should eliminate the ‘no cause’ concept. There is no reason that a company or employee should not be able to provide a cause for terminating a employment relationship.
Maher, K. (2006, March 21). Ethical but Unemployed. Retrieved from American Bar Association : http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/ethical_but_unemployed/
Summers, C. W. (2000). Employment At Will in the United States: The Divine Right of Employers. Lab. & Emp. , 5(2), 33.
Vincent Triola. Wed, Feb 03, 2021. I’m firing you for no reason. Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/i-m-firing-you-for-no-reason