Under the at-will doctrine, employers have the right to fire an employee anytime for whatever or for no reason at all without obtaining liability. Likewise, you may also leave your job anytime you want for any reason or none at all without destructive legal consequences. However, there are certain exceptions to this rule.

The firing of an employee might be considered wrongful termination if it does not meet the requirements of common law and if it violates one of the exceptions to the at-will doctrine, such as the public policy exception.

What is Public Policy?

Public policy refers to the rights that are intended for the advantage of the public. These rights are not bound by waiver and do not visibly prohibit firing or discipline. Even so, it could be used in wrongful termination claims because it is the most widely acknowledged common law exception to the at-will doctrine.

The public policy exception protects employees from any harmful act of employment that violates public interest.

Whether an employment contract is at-will or any other kind of agreement, the majority of courts apply the wrongful termination rule in public policy violation, as this exception is a principle under tort law and the at-will doctrine is a principle under contract law.

The states that acknowledge the public policy exception vary greatly in how broadly or narrowly it is accepted. The majority of states only recognize public policy which is conveyed in state constitutions and statutes, whereas certain states allow further sources that might include the following:

  • Professional codes of ethics
  • Administrative rules and regulations
  • Broader views of civic duty and public good

What are the Categories of the Public Policy Exception?

The public policy exception has four categories, as identified by the proposed Restatement Third of Employment Law of the American Law Institute:

  • Refusal to perform an illegal act. Some examples include:
  1. A therapist who refuses to perform a medical procedure he or she is not licensed to execute
  2. Refusing an employer's order to commit perjury at a trial
  3. Refusing to pass fake reports to the government
  • Reporting illegal actions. Here are some examples:
  1. Reporting the use of an employer of child labor or fraudulent accounting process
  2. Reporting to the authorities that an employer's product had been mislabeled
  3. Reporting to the supervisor's manager that the supervisor missed mandatory inspections on purpose
  • Carrying out a duty required by law. For example:
  1. Executing jury duty
  2. Joining the National Guard
  3. Giving court statement in response to a subpoena
  • Using a right given to employees. Some examples include:
  1. Suing an employer
  2. Filing a workers' compensation claim