At-Will Employment and Exceptions in Virginia

To understand at will employment exceptions in Virginia, residents must first be aware of the 200-year at-will employment doctrine established in the United States. Major exceptions to at will employment are up to state acceptance, and these exceptions have greatly changed the employment landscape for both employers and employees. In this article, you will learn the three most important exceptions to at will employment and which of the three the state of Virginia recognizes.

What is employment at will in Virginia and what are the exceptions to the doctrine?

Employment at will is a term that describes the labor relationship between an employer and an employee. At-will employment refers to the understanding that both employers and employees may terminate a working relationship at any time. This type of employment means that there is no written and signed contract that defines the employment length. The employer does not have to show good cause or any cause for the termination under this doctrine. However, there are exceptions to at will employment that vary from state to state that can make some types of terminations illegal.

“Is Virginia an at will state?” residents may ask. Every state in the country has at-will employment, but not all states have the same exceptions to the at-will law. Over the last century, a few significant exceptions to employment at will have been accepted in some states. There are three major exceptions to at will employment, which are an attempt to restrict the ability of employers to terminate employment for unjust reasons. However, not all states embrace all three—or even any one of three—and different states accept and reject different combinations of these exceptions.

The three exceptions to at will employment include public policy, implied contract and covenant of good faith. Each exception to at will employment refers to a different situation. To find out what are the exceptions to at will employment in Virginia, download our detailed guide. Continue reading to learn more about the at-will employment exceptions.

1) Public-Policy Exception

The public-policy exception to at-will employment is the common concession with acceptation of it in 42 states including Virginia. This employment at-will exception refers to a situation in which an employee’s working relationship with the employer is terminated but the termination violates certain public policies of the state in which it occurs. In most cases, these public policies must be clearly known and must have been established for some time. Most states interpret the public-policy exception to at-will employment as referring to public policy in a state’s constitution, statutes or administrative rules.

The following may be examples of this widely held exception to employment at will, depending on the interpretation of the state:

An employee facing termination after filing a workers’ compensation claim because of on-site injury

An employer attempting to force an employee to break the law or commit a crime and terminating the employee for refusing to do so

An employee facing termination for refusing to lie or give false testimony on behalf of an employer

An employee being terminated for sharing the illegal activities of a co-worker with law enforcement

The public-policy exception to at will employment in Virginia is important for workers in the state to understand. Knowing what employment at will means is beneficial for recently fired employees. Terminated workers learning how to file an unemployment claim in Virginia may discover that their former employer is denying the claim after being fired for one of the above reasons.

2) Implied-Contract Exception

The second of the three main exceptions to at will employment is the implied-contract exception, which refers to situations when there is an inferred agreement between the employer and employee. This exception to at-will employment may exist when an employer offers oral or written messages to an employee that denote a contract, level of job security or procedure regarding termination. The contract is considered “implied” because there is no signed contract regarding the employment. In the country,

38 states consider such implied contracts as standing in for a signed employment contract.

An example of this at-will employment exception would be when an employer provides a handbook to a new or established employee and the contents of the handbook seem to imply a contract around the employment. The implied-contract exception to at-will employment may apply if the handbook claims that employees will only be terminated if there is “just cause” for the employer to do so. In such a case, employment at will remains valid only if there is a clear waiver in the handbook that the content of the handbook does not constitute a contract. Other specifications regarding termination made in handbooks and oral representations also apply. For instance, the implied-contract exception may be valid if an employer makes an oral assurance to an employee that he or she will not be terminated if the employee’s work remains productive. Download our comprehensive guide for details on how exceptions to at-will employment affect workers in Virginia and influence unemployment claims.

3) Covenant-of-Good-Faith Exception

The third exception to at-will employment is the least widely accepted with only 11 states recognizing the covenant-of-good-faith exception to at-will employment. This employment at-will exception is similar to the implied agreement but specifies that termination of the employment must only be enacted if there is “just cause” or if there is no malice behind the termination.

Exceptions to At Will Employment in Virginia

At will employment exceptions in Virginia do not include all three major exceptions listed above. In fact, the state of Virginia only recognizes the public-policy employment at will exception and workers will need to know how this at-will exception affects working relationships with employers.

Virginia Employment Commission