Most residents of Oregon who work in the state understand that Oregon is an “at will” state, but not many understand the important implications of this rule. Simply stated, the “at will” rule means that all employment relationships exist at the mutual will of the employer and employee. In other words, either party can end the relationship at any time for any reason. This rule would appear to put employees in a various precarious position vis a vis their employers. Happily for employees, the rule has a number of important exceptions and limitations.
The existence of a written contract
Perhaps the most common exception to the “at will” rule is the existence of a written employment contract. Many employees, especially professional employees, have written contracts with their employers that spell out the circumstances under which the employment relationship can be unilaterally terminated by either party. The employment relationship cannot be terminated unless the necessary circumstances are present. In their absence, the employee cannot be unilaterally fired by the employer.
Union contracts are not often viewed as employment agreements, but most collective bargain agreements spell out detailed provisions for terminating an employee. In this limited sense, CBAs function as employment contracts.
An improper reason for termination
A second important protection for employees is various legal doctrines that limit the employer’s right to discharge an employee. Two common examples of such improper motivation are racial motives and gender discrimination. Employers often believe that the “at will” doctrine gives them the right to engage in racial or gender discrimination without penalty. If a fired employee can prove that the employer acted from an improper motive, the employee can recover back wages and attorneys’ fees.
A third limitation on the “at will” rule is the doctrine known as constructive discharge. Under this rule, an employer cannot subject an employer to intolerable working conditions in order to force the employee to quit. If an employee can prove the existences of such conditions, the employee can usually recover back pay, damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and attorneys’ fees.
Anyone who has been discharged or feels the threat of an imminent discharge may wish to ask an experienced employment attorney to review the situation and provide advice on whether any of the defenses against an at will discharge can be used to bargain with the employer or recover damages if the employer goes through with a unilateral discharge.