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Employment At-Will
Is it contributory to Workplace Violence?

Summer Car

"Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute."

-Josh Billings


Alarming Statistics:
Is employment at-will the center of work related crimes?

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, about 1,000 people are murdered at work every year. The latest studies now indicate that about two of these murder victims per month have supervised the employee who murdered them.

The U.S. Justice Department, expands on those statistics indicating, 20 workers are killed nationwide and 18,000 assaulted in workplace violence each week

Economic and social factors may be contributing to a more violent workplace; for example, the sudden loss of employment due to the at-will doctrine, can leave people not only without jobs for the first time in their lives, but also very angry. Individuals who witness a devoted employee being released for no apparent reason become apprehensive about their own future. This insecurity breeds distrust of management and creates a more stressful work environment, especially when the employees have witnessed another employee being harassed by a supervisor in the supervisor's attempt to give that employee a constructive discharge. Studies have found that highly stressed employees experience twice the rate of violence and harassment than employees in less stressful environments. 

Workplace violence has gotten out of hand, but what has allowed the process to deteriorate to this state?

 From The American Psychological Association
VOLUME 29 , NUMBER 7 -July 1998

"Stories about horrific workplace murders and assaults have become common in the media. But far less frequently reported are the day-to-day bullying and intimidation many employees experience from bosses as well as co-workers—experiences that can not only undermine morale and productivity, but, psychologists say, also lead to the worst kind of workplace violence." 

"There are no statistics on the extent of workplace bullying, but Braverman says the behavior is 'endemic' in some organizations." 

" Bullying and intimidation can’t happen unless there is a climate that allows it,' he says. And that climate discourages employees from reporting potentially violent behavior that may be 'early warning signs' of individual breakdown and severe workplace stress. " 

"NIOSH says an average of 20 U.S. workers are murdered and 18,000 assaulted each week at work—and these figures don’t include bullying, threats and other forms of verbal, physical and sexual harassment.""



Employment At Will

One area in which to look for answers to the questions of workplace violence, is the outdated, employment at-will doctrine; upheld by lawmakers throughout the country who refuse to enact laws to rectify this problem and upheld by the judicial system that time and time again strikes down employees legal fight for freedom from the at-will oppression.

There are many theories concerning the inception of the at-will doctrine. Some feel that the doctrine of at-will employment first appeared as a statement in a legal treatise by Horace G. Wood, Master and Servant, (pages 272-273) written in 1877. (Reprints now available.) After having secured a copy of Master and Servant, I tend to lean towards the thesis that Wood made-up the concept of at-will employment, wrongly describing it as already having been accepted by the courts.

Soon after Wood's treatise appeared, various courts began citing the rule in his treatise; in the case of McCullough Iron Co. v. Carpenter, (MD 1887) the court stated: ([Wood's treatise] is an American authority of high repute ...."); thus the rule within a matter of years, became accepted as law.

Others, however, feel it was not until the case of Adair v The United States (1908) when the court found: "While the rights of liberty and property guaranteed by the Constitution against deprivation without due process of law, are subject to such reasonable restrictions as the common good or general welfare may require, it is not within the functions of government -- at least in the absence of contract -- to compel any person in the course of his business, and against his will, either to employ, or be employed by, another. An employer has the same right to prescribe terms on which he will employ one to labor as an employee has to prescribe those on which he will sell his labor, and any legislation which disturbs this equality is an arbitrary and unjustifiable interference with liberty of contract,” that the employment at-will doctrine took full force."

No matter what the cause, the employment at-will doctrine has haunted American employees for far too long.

The "employment at will" rule in virtually every state within the nation is simply this: an employer may dismiss an employee who was hired for an indefinite period, at any time for any reason or no reason, without incurring any liability to the employee. Over the year’s statutes, laws and judicial hearings have eroded the doctrine, but not enough to totally protect all American Employees; in fact there are only the three groups protected against the at-will doctrine, State Employees, Federal Employees and Union Members.


Both statutes and court decisions have made recognized exceptions to this rule. Federal and state laws protect particular groups of people from arbitrary dismissal or expressly prohibit discharge for particular reasons; such as discharge of an employee because the employee is disabled. There are also Federal and state laws that protect various classes of employees from termination due to race, sex, age, national origin and other factors. Courts have also recognized two basic exceptions to the employment at will rule:

1. Public Policy Exception: An employer may not terminate an employee at will if the termination would violate public policy (this exception is not applied in New York, Maine, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska or Rhode Island). This means that employers are not allowed to discharge an employee for a reason that society should not allow, such as: termination for filing a workers’ compensation claim, refusal to violate the law, reporting a violation of the law (whistle-blowing), or filing a complaint against the employer. In other words; in the states listed above, it is legal for your employer to terminate you for refusing to Break The Law on their behalf.

2. Implied Contract Exception: An employer may not terminate an employee at will where there is an implied contract between the employer and employee. (This exception is not valid in Florida, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, or Virginia.) Contractual obligations are found in an employer's oral or written assurances that employees would only be discharged for cause; this includes outlined guidelines for dismissal in handbooks, offering the employee a progressive discipline procedure. Implied contracts can also include oral promises of job security. Even in the states that do recognize implied contracts, courts have found against the employee.

3. Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing Exception: This requires parties to a contract to be fair to one another and not to act in bad faith, it typically applies to cases where an employee has been working for the company for many years or where the person is fired just before he or she is due to receive anticipated financial benefits. (This exception is only applied in the following states: Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Montana, Massachusetts, Idaho, Delaware, California, Alabama, Alaska and Arizona.) The courts within the eleven states that do recognize this exception seem to feel that employers should conduct themselves fairly and in good faith when dealing with employees.

4. Wrongful Discharge Exception: The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws published a uniform employment termination act in 1992. This model act provides that employees can be fired only for "good cause," has not yet been passed by any state. Currently, the only state, which has a comprehensive wrongful discharge statute, is Montana. However, some state courts have found that a constructive discharge (when an employer causes or allows an employee’s working conditions to become so intolerable that the employee has no choice but to resign) constitutes a wrongful discharge. (Montana ranks 44 for population estimates in the United States.)

The question that needs to be asked is simple:

Is the refusal of American lawmakers to effectively deal with the employment at-will doctrine and constructive discharge issue breathing life into workplace violence and breeding murderous intent?


From: The Detroit News, November 15, 2001: "On Nov. 14, 1991, Thomas McIlvane, a fired postal worker, slipped into the post office and fatally shot four people and wounded four others before turning his .22-caliber rifle on himself."

"Three of the four killed were managers; the fourth was a management trainee."

Phelon workers say suspect sought those he blamed for his dismissal.

From: Augusta Chronicle, September 17, 1997: "Accused gunman Arthur Hastings Wise had an agenda Monday when he walked into R.E. Phelon Co. and opened fire, according to several plant employees."

"He had some targets because he was on Mr. Griffeth and he was the one doing the firing and hiring. He had final say,'' Mr. Swancey said."

Mr. Griffeth, the company's human resources director, was the first person killed.


From:, December 18, 1997: Arturo Reyes Torres, 43, walks into a maintenance yard in Orange, California with an AK-47 and kills his former boss and three others. Torres, who blamed the supervisor for getting him fired, is later shot by police.


Report from: The Edmonton Sun, November 3, 1999: "Police believe Byran Uyesugi, a 15-year Xerox employee, shot seven fellow copier technicians at about 8 a.m. (11 a.m. MST) after learning that he was about to be dismissed by Xerox."


From: Honolulu Advertiser, November 14, 1999: "Typically, workplace shooters blame supervisors or co-workers for some slight, and fantasize about killing them, Fox said. Their plans often change during the shooting because of timing and circumstances. “Sometimes they just want to kill the company,” he said."

Here, the reader can be the judge, jury and executioner. If you believe that the employment at-will doctrine is even remotely to blame for the increase in workplace violence, then it is up to you to help stop the spread of violence. Contact your assemblymen, legislators and congressmen, tell them of your dissatisfaction in regards to their lack of response in regards to this topic.  Spread the word; tell your friends and family about the at-will doctrine, explain how it may contribute to their lack of protection in the workplace and have them contact their elected officials too. Make this an issue that won't go away until it is FIXED.

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  1. Fired for Having a Heart Attack - The Employment At-Will Doctrine

  2. Is At-Will Out-The-Door in NY?

  3. Workplace Violence & Employment At-Will
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    Page last Updated 6/20/2002
    C 2002 L Munro