“At-will employment,” what does it really mean?

The first time I ever heard the term “at-will employee” was right after I was hired as a “bag-boy” for a local supermarket chain named Ingles. However, it was not until I worked with an employment law firm and took a course in Employment Discrimination during law school that I truly understood the ramifications of at-will employment.

North Carolina is an at-will employment state, which means that an at-will employee may quit or be fired at any time for any reason. As a 16-year-old “bag-boy,” I understood that much, but what I did not fully understand was that there are two significant exceptions to the at-will employment general rule. Those two exceptions can occur by (1) an employer’s conduct or (2) by words or documents that create an employment contract.

Employment Contract

If an employer and an employee agree that the employee will be employed for a definite term, the employee is no longer an at-will employee. The key component of a contract for a definite term is a specific period of time during which the employee will be employed. The courts have historically applied the same rules of contract construction with respect to employment agreements as they do to other agreements. Therefore, the courts have deemed that the parties’ intentions control, and have looked to their course of conduct. Moreover, employment contracts can be either written or oral.

Employer’s Conduct

North Carolina recognizes a narrow exception to the employment-at-will doctrine known as the “public policy exception.” The public policy exception has been narrowly construed and is grounded in considerations designed either to prohibit status-based discrimination or to ensure the integrity of the judicial process and enforcement of the law. Accordingly, in order to trigger the public policy exception, the discharge must violate a specific “North Carolina public policy” expressed in an explicit North Carolina statutory or constitutional provision, or the discharge must have been the result of the employee’s refusal to “violate any law that might result in potential harm to the public.” Furthermore, an employer cannot hide behind at-will employment  when it has acted in a manner that is in violation of federal employment laws such as Title VII.

If you are an employee in North Carolina, know your rights. Although you are likely an at-will employee, your employer must act consistently with North Carolina’s public policy and with federal employment laws.

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