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At-will employment and exceptions to the rule

Since the 1800s, states have practiced the concept of at-will employment. This is based on employers and employees being on equal footing in terms of bargaining power. In practice, however, the courts recognize that as employment positions and employees' skills become more specialized, it becomes more difficult for them to find new jobs if their employment is terminated. Because of this, many states, including New Jersey, have made exceptions to at-will employment policies.

There are three types of exceptions, and New Jersey has two of these. Implied contract exceptions refer to employers providing oral or written implications of job security even if no contract exists. Under public-policy exceptions, employers wrongfully terminate employment if the reason for the termination is against the policy of the state. The first state to adopt public-policy exceptions was California when an employee was fired for not committing perjury when he was called to testify in court regarding his employer's unlawful actions.

Most states recognize public-policy exceptions, but they interpret "public policy" in various ways. In some states, such as Wisconsin, the only allowed exceptions have to be clearly stated in state statutes. In other states, such as New Jersey, both state statutes and civic duty are considered. One example of the latter is an Illinois case in which a worker was fired for reporting his coworker's unlawful actions to police and volunteering to assist in the investigation. Because the reason for termination was the worker enacting his civic duty, the court ruled in his favor.

In 1964, it became unlawful nationwide to terminate a worker's employment based on his or her race, national origin, gender, religion or age, furthering the rights of workers. If a worker feels as though his or her termination was based upon a protected class or one of the at-will employment exceptions, the individual may seek to bring a wrongful termination legal action against the employer.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics , "The employment-at-will doctrine: three major exceptions", Charles J. Muhl, October 02, 2014

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