What Does 'Employment-at-Will' Mean in Oklahoma?

For many people, especially those who have been working for one employer for many years, their workplace is almost like a second home. This can sometimes lead to a sense of security in the fact that, unless one does something very wrong, his or her employer can't just suddenly terminate the relationship. Unfortunately, in many cases, this premise is not correct.

Ever since the late 19th-century, the U.S. legal system as a whole has embraced a doctrine called "employment-at-will." Previously, American courts had followed the practice in England of inferring a one-year contractual period when a job was being performed for an indefinite duration. However, that changed as the industrial revolution took hold and transformed the landscape of American labor relations. According to the employment-at-will doctrine, unless a contract of specific length is entered into by employer and employee, the work performed is considered to be "at will," and can be terminated by either party, at any time, and for any or no reason. This is still the basic rule regarding labor relationships in Oklahoma.

There are, of course, some exceptions. If there is an employment contract in place, that document may specify the reasons the relationship can be ended, as well as the procedure for doing so. Further, public policy and statutory considerations can limit the ability of employers to terminate an employee in certain circumstances. An example of a public policy exception might be that it would be prohibited for an employer to fire a worker who refused to participate in an illegal activity. Further, over the years, a regime of civil rights and whistle blower protections has emerged that act as limits on the employment-at-will doctrine. As we have discussed before in this space, firing someone on the basis of his or her race, gender, religion or other protected status may subject an employer to a wrongful termination claim. Also, retaliating against a worker who exercises his or her legal rights may be prohibited.

So, while the employment-at-will doctrine still predominates, both the federal and state governments have carved out exceptions that can be used to protect and compensate employees in certain situations. If you have questions about this potentially complex subject matter, either as a worker or an employer, you may want to consider consulting an experienced Oklahoma employment lawyer.