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The 'At-Will' Relationship

    September 23, 2011

     Central SD SHRM Special Chamber of Commerce Article

    The ‘At-Will’ Relationship

    Technically, the ‘at-will’ relationship between employee and employer allows either party to terminate the employment relationship at any time. The reality, however, is the at-will doctrine is riddled with exceptions to include discrimination, defamation of character and retaliation.

    Discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, sex, ancestry, national origin, disability or age (40 years of age or older) is prohibited. Most law suits arise out of terminations where the employee believes they were fired for discriminatory reasons. There are a number of laws prohibiting discipline and termination due to retaliation for engaging in a legally protected activity. An example of a legally protected activity is an employee who, in good faith, reports a violation occurring in the work place. Defamation of character is a statement or action made with intention to harm the employee’s reputation.

    Employees sue when they believe they were treated unfairly or different than other employees within the organization. While ‘at-will’ makes an employment decision sound easy, you should still exercise sound judgment. Prior to your decision, review related employment agreements, offer letters, employee policies and handbooks. Review the personnel file and all applicable performance related documentation. In addition, ensure your decisions are consistent among employees in similarly situated circumstances. Inconsistency in personnel related actions is a breeding ground for discrimination lawsuits.

    Submitted by Susan Barta, President, Central SD SHRM. You can submit questions or comments regarding this article to

    Central SD SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) strives to enhance your knowledge in the area of human resources and provide you with avenues to help you stay current on the latest human resources and employment law trends. For more information or to inquire on membership go to our website at or email us at